Baboon Sounds May Hold the Key to Understanding the Formation of Human Language
A new study proposes that baboon grunts and barks might have more in common with human speech than most people believe. Researchers have noted that these monkeys routinely produce five of the distinct vowel sounds found in human languages. Their findings may help in the struggle to discover just how human speech developed.
Acoustical Analysis Surprises the Scientific World
According to a study published January 11, 2017 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, an acoustical analysis of the grunts, barks, wahoos, copulation calls, and yaks from baboons showed that - just like human beings who use several vowels during speech - these animals seem to make five distinct vowel-like sounds.
The researchers, led by Dr. Louis-Jean Boë of Grenoble Alpes University, studied the acoustics of 1,335 baboon sounds, as well as the non-human primates’ tongue anatomy. Their research suggests that the human vocal system developed from abilities that already existed in ancestors such as the Guinea baboon.
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Guinea Baboon Portrait. (Hamish Irvine/ CC BY NC 2.0 )
“Similarities between humans and baboons suggest that the vowels of human speech probably evolved from ancient articulatory precursors that were passed on and refined all along the hominid line,” co-author of the study, Joel Fagot, told Neuroscience News .
Additionally, they found similar muscles in baboon tongues as human tongues, which could be the key to our ability to make vowel sounds. As CTV News reports , the scientists wrote:
"Language is a key difference between humans and the rest of the natural world, but the origin of our speech remains one of the greatest mysteries of science. The evidence developed in this study does not support the hypothesis of the recent, sudden, and simultaneous appearance of language and speech in modern Homo sapiens. It suggests that spoken languages evolved from ancient articulatory skills already present in our last common ancestor ... about 25 million years ago."
Anatomical structure of the baboon tongue and muscle recruitment during ‘vowel-like segments’ (VLS) production. VLS refers to any continuous section within a vocalization containing a consistent and detectable formant structure. ( Boë et al )
The Origins of Human Language: One of the Hardest Problems in Science
As reported before on Ancient Origins , the beginning of human language has been a mystery pestering scientists for centuries. One of the biggest issues with this topic is that empirical evidence is still lacking despite our great advances in technology. This lack of concrete evidence even led to a past prohibition of any future debates regarding the origins of communication by the Linguistic Society of Paris. Despite the obstacles, a number of researchers including psychologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, and linguists continue studying the topic.
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An important Neanderthal study from 2014, however, pushed the origins of language back further than most of the scientific world believed until recent years. An international team of scientists led by Associate Professor Stephen Wroe, a zoologist and paleontologist from the University of New England, made a revolutionary discovery which challenges the notion that Homo sapiens are unique in their capacity for speech and language. The current study also supports this idea – and pushes the beginnings of language even further back in the hominid line.
The research team in the 2014 Neanderthal study utilized 3D x-ray imaging technology to examine a 60,000-year-old Neanderthal hyoid bone that had been discovered in the Kebara Cave in Israel in 1989. The hyoid bone, otherwise called the lingual bone, is a small, u-shaped bone situated centrally in the upper part of the neck, beneath the mandible but above the larynx. The function of the hyoid is to provide an anchor point for the muscles of the tongue and for those in the upper part of the front of the neck.
Image depicting the location of the hyoid bone and larynx in a modern human. ( Lasaludfamiliar)
The hyoid bone, which is the only bone in the body not connected to any other, is generally thought to be the foundation of speech - and it has only been found in the right place in humans and Neanderthals. Other animals have versions of the hyoid, but only the human variety is said to be in the right position to work in unison with the larynx and tongue and make us the chatterboxes of the animal world. Without it, scientists say we'd be making noises much like chimpanzees.
A Loose Parallel Between Human Vowels and Baboon Vocalizations
However, the “noises” chimpanzees make might not be as primitive as you’d think - as recent studies on monkeys have identified five vowels, implying a link to the origins of human language.
Linear predictive coding (LPC) and spectrograms and formants (audio and speech processing and analysis) for different Guinea baboon “noises” by VLS class. ( Boë et al )
Furthermore, the authors of the current study wrote that the larynx’s position may not be as key to speech as generally believed – at least regarding vowel sounds:
“Several recent discoveries have begun to challenge this dominant view that a low larynx is required for vowel systems. First, descended and dynamically descending larynges have been discovered in animal species with no documented ability to produce systems of vowel-like sounds. Second, human infants, with their larynx still high, produce the same range of vowel qualities as adults. Third, modeling suggests that the production of vocalic sounds does not depend on the position of the larynx, but rather on the control of tongue muscles and lips to properly constrict the vocal tract. Fourth, simulations also suggest that Neanderthal vocal anatomies supported phonetic capacities equivalent to modern Homo sapiens . All these findings reopen the possibility that vocalic systems might very well be present in nonhuman primates, in spite of their high larynx.”
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Professor Scott Moisik of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, who didn’t take part in the new study, believes that its findings fit with his own experiences listening to primates in zoos and online animal videos, in an email to The Associated Press he said:
"When I hear a cat on YouTube produce a vocalization that very much sounds like 'oh long Johnson,' or the 'no' cat, or a dog that gets pretty-darned close in imitating 'I love you' ... I am led to believe that, to use the words of Boë and company, 'speech precursors' (however rudimentary or limited) go back further than 25 million years ago.”
He and colleague Dan Dediu also pointed out that vowels are just part of the equation and further research on consonant production is needed too before concrete conclusions can be made.
Top Image: A Guinea Baboon. Source: Josh More/ CC BY NC ND 2.0
Fascinating research! Baboons have long been my favorite.
Great to see this come about and who’s to say they didn’t also communicate with primative sign language.
Mr Roberto Peron from here at AO and I were discussing this just the other day if anyone would like to come join in the conversation…