Have you ever wondered how our ancestors constituted language? Our friendly neighbors, orangutans, may have the answer! Scientists spent years studying the communication calls of orangutans- one of our closest ape relatives. Finally, their efforts paid off, shedding the light on the origin of human language.
Dr Adriano Reis e Lameira of the Durham University recorded and analysed almost 5,000 calls of orangutans.
"We were basically using the orangutan vocal behaviour as a time machine - back to a time when our ancestors were using what would become [those precursors] of consonants and vowels,” says Dr Reis e Lameira.
Together with Professor Serge Wich of the Liverpool John Moors University, also a lead author of the study, they found that the way orangutans purse their lips or make “kiss squeaks" and “consonant-like” sounds send different messages and signals. This could be a glimpse of our ancestor’s early speech.
Researchers studied kiss squeaks in particular because they depend on the action of the lips, tongue and jaw rather than the voice just like many consonants (the /t/, /p/, /k/ sounds). These consonants are crucial "building blocks" in the evolution of language since most human languages have a lot more consonants than vowels. And perhaps words evolved from this basic precursor to transmit more complex messages. That is, human ancestors may have combined similar noises to express syllables or words.
Moreover, the researchers also found that the orangutans embedded several different bits of information in their ‘squeaks’ just as how we use more than one word to convey the same meaning like saying ‘car’, ‘automobile’ and ‘vehicle’.
"They seemed to make doubly sure that the message was received, so they would send the same message with different signals," he explains.
Language is constantly growing and while the study provided incremental evidence that different basic mouth signals provided a solid foundation for early language evolution, it might also tell us where the current one will be headed.