language Researcher Durham
language Researcher Durham

When you sit down with a friend for a chat and a cup of tea, do you ever wonder where we humans got our remarkable ability to communicate from? Well, you may be interested to know that a team, led by a Durham University academic, might have made a surprising breakthrough regarding the origins of human language. A project studying orangutans, led by Durham’s Dr Adriano Lameira, has discovered that the apes have the ability to control their voices. The researchers played a ‘do-as-I-do’ game with an eleven-year-old male orangutan named Rocky, from Indianapolis Zoo. During the game, the researchers found that Rocky could copy the pitch and tone of the sounds they made. Rocky’s utterances contained ‘vowel-like’ noises, which – it is thought – could have been the types of sounds human languages evolved from.

Dr Lameira stated, “It is not clear how spoken language evolved from the communication systems of the ancestral great apes. Instead of learning new sounds, it has been presumed that sounds made by great apes are driven by arousal over which they have no control, but our research proves that orangutans have the potential capacity to control the action of their voices … The voice control shown by humans could derive from an evolutionary ancestor with similar voice control capacities as those found in orangutans and in all great apes.”

Dr Lameira said his research could help us “see how the vocal system evolved towards full-blown speech in humans.”

Dr Lameira’s team also compared Rocky’s noises to the recorded calls of 120 other orangutans, which are stored in a huge database. The database contains sounds that were collected from both wild and captive populations of the apes during an incredible 12,000 hours of observations. Some of Rocky’s sounds were different from those on the database, proving that he was able to learn new noises and control his voice in a ‘conversational’-type way. It was previously believed that our ape ancestors could not learn new sounds and that because human speech is a learned behaviour, it could not have originated from them. The research might therefore prove that language began to evolve with our non-human, rather than our human, ancestors.

The findings of Dr Lameira’s team were published in the journal Scientific Reports on July 27th.

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