Baboons and other monkeys are closely related to modern humans, so many zoologists study them to learn more about what early humanoids may have been like. Some new research provides fascinating insight into how human speech may have developed, looking into sounds produced by baboons.
It turns out that humans may have started speaking earlier than assumed. These findings not only show how humans may have learned to talk, but they also reveal that baboons may be developing their own language right now.
Researchers Find that Baboons Use Vowel Sounds to Communicate
Since both humans and baboons are part of the primate family, they share many characteristics. These intelligent animals have complicated social hierarchies, can distinguish between different written words, and are capable of using tools. Therefore, linguists and zoologists were curious about the baboon’s capability to create spoken language.
Researchers from multiple universities in France united to study a group of 15 male and female baboons. They recorded the noises that the baboons made while interacting with each other and collected 1,335 unique vocalizations. Two of the baboons in the group died of natural causes, so the researchers were able to dissect them and examine their vocal tract anatomy.
All of this research was then carefully analyzed to develop some scientific conclusions. The researchers found that five distinct vowel-like sounds kept showing up again and again in the middle of the grunts, calls, barks, and other noises made by the baboons. These five vowel noises share many similarities with the human vowels which are a, e, i, o, and u.
The study results were somewhat surprising because most linguists assumed that distinct vowels can only be created with a larynx that is located deep within the throat. Non-human primates tend to have a much higher larynx, but they can still make vowels because their tongues have the same exact muscles as humans do.
These findings are significant because baboons and humans are not technically part of the same family. Humans are part of the Hominini branch of primates while baboons are part of the Cercopithecinae branch of primates. This means that humans may have been capable of speaking long before their genetic precursors split away into a separate subfamily. Our human ancestors may have started creating speech as early as 25 million years ago instead of the 100,000 years ago that most scientists thought.
Study co author Dr. Joel Fagot explains, “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.” Theoretically, all primates may be able to mimic human like speech someday.
Though the study found that baboons are capable of physically creating vowel sounds, it did not focus on their mental ability to develop cognitive language. It is already known that baboons do tend to use distinct noises to communicate with each other, but they have not developed a complete language with grammatical tenses and abstract discussions. Baboons may be intelligent when compared to other animals, but they do not have the cognitive level of humans.
Will Baboons Learn to Talk?
This research has some fascinating implications because it shows that humans might have started speaking to each other much earlier than previously thought. Over time, simple vowel noises evolved into the many different complex languages used by humanity. If baboon language development continues to mimic human language, the species may be able to communicate much more clearly in the next few millennia. One day, it may even be possible for humans to decipher baboon speech.