Talkative Orangutan Shows Scientists How Language Evolved

By Nathaniel Scharping | July 28, 2016 3:01 pm
orangutan family

(Credit: Sergey Uryadnikov/Shutterstock) 

An orangutan named Rocky is using “wookies” to reveal new insights into the origins of language.

In experiments conducted by a researcher at Amsterdam University, Rocky learned and recited a basic vocabulary of sounds, producing vocalizations no orangutan is known to make. By learning to mimic his human instructor, this talkative primate is lending support to one of the leading theories of language evolution.

Repeat After Me

Adriano Lameira, now a professor in the department of anthropology at Durham University, used food rewards to train Rocky to mimic the sounds a human was making. The sounds, called “wookies”, differ from vocalizations naturally produced by orangutans, termed “grumphs.”

Over time, Rocky got better at producing the wookies, learning to modulate his vocal folds — thin curtains of tissue that vibrate when air is passed over them — and other components of sound production to match the human enunciations. Rocky’s abilities prove that primates can manipulate their vocal folds at a fine scale to create distinct sounds, a key component for building up and using a complex vocabulary.

Language Evolved Gradually

Theories about how protean languages first came to be are widespread, and cover a pretty broad spectrum. Some say that language emerged from instinctive vocalizations that our ancestors uttered when experiencing strong emotions. Others hold that language emerged from the rhythmic “songs” and vocalizations of early hominins. Another theory holds that language is simply a natural progression from gesture-based communication, which is limited by sight lines and darkness.

The findings lend credence to the idea that language developed slowly, growing more complex over time. The findings were published Wednesday in Scientific Reports.

Wherever language came from, it has two essential components: physical and cognitive capabilities. We need to have both the mental faculties to form and communicate ideas and the bodily structures necessary to produce gestures or sounds.

Signing gorillas can communicate via gestures, proving they have the mental abilities to do so exist. Now, Rocky has shown that primates can learn to produce new sounds as well, illustrating that the physical underpinnings of language go back millions of years.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals, human origins
  • H. Keith Henson

    “Millennia” is thousands of years. The split between the apes that led to humans and the ones who led to orangutangs is (wikipeida) 16-19 million years ago. If you fix, remove this comment please.

  • Uncle Al

    Apply that thought to the Department of Education and its multi-$billion/year travesties. “two essential components: physical and cognitive capabilities.” Stephen Hawking. Jocks are generically stupid.

    When will a great ape say, “stop holding me prisoner”?

    • cgosling

      Uncle Al, I know you’re kidding about the orange ape being held prisoner, but for those who think you are serious, orangutan’s in the wild are on the brink of extinction. I have met Rocky at the Indianapolis zoo and he personally told me he much rather be where he is than in the wild.

      • talibanana

        They would rather be in the wild. Any animal would. I’ve visited Sumatra where they roam in the wild and it’s a travesty that the world is ignoring the rampant habitat destruction that is killing off the orang utans. They are our closest ancestors besides maybe chimps. BTW – “orang” has nothing to do with the color of the ape. It means “man of the forest” – orang meaning “man” and “utan” or “hutan” meaning forest in Malay/Indonesian

  • Rich

    Am I reading this correctly? You are saying that speech came about when a vastly more intelligent being who already knows how to speak imparted speech training to the lower being? Would that not more support God giving speech to those created in his image?

    • Jason Semple

      You read that very incorrectly.
      This study shows that apes are capable of learning new vocalizations. Period.
      We’ve previously seen that apes can think abstractly with word-like concepts.
      So as apes communicate and teach each other skills they can share vocalizations as well. Generation to generation. Troop to troop.
      Yes, the process goes much, much quicker with a higher intelligence orchestrating the process, but speed isn’t required in nature. Evolution happens on a scale that is difficult to imagine. Thousands and millions of year is nearly incomprehensible from the perspective of a species that only lives a few decades.

  • Don Huntington

    Something missing from the theory is any account for the complexities of every natural language. There is no such thing as a “primitive” language. The most primitive tribes in the depths of an Amazon jungle or Irian Jaya cannibals have languages with complex grammatical systems — rich verb congregations. How did the grunts and “wookies” inevitably grow into complex orderly grammatical systems? (I’ve been wondering about this for years.)

    • Jason Semple

      I think you’ve jumped ahead a bit. Studies of gorillas have shown that apes can utilize abstraction to think/communicate. This study shows that they are capable of learning new vocalizations. This is the foundation of language.
      I wouldn’t be surprised if syntax/grammar developed out of the need for deeper meaning with a limited vocabulary and further defined by the actual neural physiology of how the brain stores and retrieves data.

    • talibanana

      Sure but the grunts, etc none-the-less exemplify the ability of apes to vocalize and mimic the vocalizations of others, which is a requirement for language development. Granted it is not a language form by any means, but consider a child first says “dada” or “mama” and there is no complex grammar happening to be sure.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


Briefing you on the must-know news and trending topics in science and technology today.

See More

Collapse bottom bar