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Bonobos Babble Like Human Babies: What it Means

Aug 11, 2015 04:24 AM EDT
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It turns out that the unusual great apes of Africa known as bonobos might be better at understand a baby's babble than even her own mother. A new study has revealed that these primal relatives of humanity communicate much like babies, hinting that they might be on an evolutionary fast-track to complex language development.

If you were to ever find yourself in the remote jungles of Africa, you might hear the tentative "peep-peep" of bonobos warning one another of your presence. But these sounds are not just used for warning. Researchers have long known that bonobos, once called pigmy chimpanzees, are our closest living relatives, sharing a stunning amount of genetic information with humanity. It's then not absurd to assume that these creatures share a lot of behavior with humans as well, including remarkably deep language skills.

"When I studied the bonobos in their native setting in Congo, I was struck by how frequent their peeps were, and how many different contexts they produce them in," researcher Zanna Clay, from the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology, said in a statement. "It became apparent that because we couldn't always differentiate between peeps, we needed understand the context to get to the root of their communication." (Scroll to read on...)

So that is what Clay and her colleagues set out to do. Comparing peeps and observing wild bonobos in all kinds of situational context, the researchers determined that unlike most animal calls, a single peep wasn't just tied to one purpose or emotion.

To better understand this, you need look no further than the cradle. Babies cry when they are upset and laugh when they are happy, buy the also gurgle and babble at their mothers in all kinds of context. Language experts call these sounds 'protophones,' which are utterly independent of emotional state. It was long thought that these unique calls -  which babies start using soon after warming up to the world - was what distinguished humanity from the animal kingdom.

However, "we felt that it was premature to conclude that this ability is uniquely human, especially as no one had really looked for it in the great apes," Clay added.

Sure enough, as recently described in the scientific journal PeerJ, Clay and her team concluded that the bonobo peeps are indeed protophone calls.

"It appears that the more we look the more similarity we find between animals and humans," said Clay.

The researcher and her team are now arguing that such vocal flexibility is a sign that these animals are taking a path towards language development this is remarkably similar to humanity's. Clay adds that this protophone babble could have even been present in the common ancestor of humans and bonobos - before we diverged from the rest of the great apes seven or eight million years ago.

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Bonobos are not the only animals to boast some incredible clues about language development. Past studies have looked to chimpanzee chatter, showing that while the iconic apes may not be using protophone calls like babies, their calls are exceptionally complex and adaptive. In fact, chimps even change their calls and learn new ones depending on the region - a hint as to how and why dialects develop.

Additionally, old world monkeys like the singing silvery gibbon hint at the history of langue, with their complex songs stringing together structured context, even if unable to express additional meaning. That second part, the unspoken "expressive layer" of human language, may have even been learned from listening to the melodies of birds.

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