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Primate Communication

The human voice clearly is a remarkable phenomenon. The anatomy of our throat and the cognitive abilities of our brain allow us to create an amazing breadth of sounds and imbue them with purposeful subtleties, such as a snarky tone or a singer’s vibrato. Culture, communication, coordination, and perhaps even civilization itself, have all been attributed to our vocal abilities. The traditional view in science has been that non-human primates, constrained by a different throat anatomy, use vocalizations in a much more limited manner — basic alarm calls for example. Yet we know from cognitive studies and abilities in sign language that many primates demonstrably have the brain power for language. Another seemingly simple and trivial matter is the basic concepts of taking turns speaking in a conversation. Non-human primates have been broadly categorized as being incapable of such. But a fascinating recent summary (citation below) reports that all of these anatomical, behavioral, and cognitive components are indeed variously present across a variety of primates—humans happen to have all of them. For example, lemurs take turns vocalizing, marmosets can produce subtly affected sounds to the extent of actually forming different dialects among groups or regions, and baboons have an anatomy capable of forming vowel-like sounds. From an evolutionary perspective, these results lay the framework of “pre-existing” conditions that led to the complex vocal speech and organized language in our human ancestors, making the point that language likely evolved as an important component of the highly cooperative social groups that those same human ancestors were developing at the time. A great quote from the end of the article:

“Nonhuman primates do not talk, but should not expect them to. Each species has its own adaptations for communication. Nevertheless, there is much we can learn about language evolution that we can learn from nonhuman primates, provided that we study a variety of species and consider the multiple components of speech and language.”
C.T. Snowdon, 2017:1122

The author also reminds us that communication need not be vocal—such as in the case of human sign language—and that gestural communications in primates certainly are present, yet remain under-studied. Interestingly, just today I received a research proposal from some primatologists at the University of Georgia, requesting permission to specifically study gestural communication in our world-famous gorilla population. Neat stuff, indeed!
Joe Mendelson, PhD
Director of Research

Citation: Snowdon, C.T. 2017. Learning from monkey “talk.” Science 355:1120–1122.

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