Orangutan kissing informs language evolution

By Martha Bozic

Dr Adriano Lameira, from the Department of Anthropology at Durham University, has spent time living in rainforests with orangutans in order to collect data for his research.

His most recent article, concerning their voiceless calls – dubbed ‘kiss squeaks’ – has reached national news outlets with its claims of new evidence for the origins of human speech. Lameira puts this down to the personal investment we have in such a topic – “language means so much for us.”

This new study differs from previous research as it considers oral sounds made primarily outside of the larynx: “a smack, or a raspberry, or a click”. These ‘proto-consonants’ developed much later than the voiced predecessors to vowels, on which we already have a wealth of knowledge. Despite their late appearance on our evolutionary timeline, and apparent rarity in the animal kingdom, Lameira tells me that “some languages will have a consonant to vowel ratio of 20 to one.” It seems somewhat negligent, therefore, that until now, consonant sounds have been omitted from the canon of speech evolution.

Lameira believes that the appearance of these two types of calls separately – and on rare occasions together – in orangutans could parallel the development of our own powers of speech, just a few steps before our first words as a species.

“the doors [could be opened] to Masters students [to spend] five to six months in the forest”

He admits that “it was hard at first” to get funding for the study, which involved fieldwork in Borneo where he “lived alongside orangutans for about three years.” The current media interest, however, has changed the game, and Lameira suggests that “the doors [could be opened] to Masters students [to spend] five to six months in the forest” for similar projects in the future.

His work focuses on orangutans as “[their] vocal repertoire…is really rich” and can therefore provide huge amounts of information about how our own speech developed. He is insistent, however, that “if we really want to reconstruct what might have been the ancestral form of language evolution” it is important to cross reference studies done on many different species of ape, as they all provide different insights into how we communicate.

It should be noted that Lameira does not believe that apes can talk to each other as humans do; instead, his research considers “[the] information encoded in the call.” He elucidates this by comparing it to “recognising over the phone, the voice of a friend [sic].”

Now back in Durham, Lameira says there are “pros and cons on both sides,” of the drastically different environments he has lived in over the past few years. The forest is by no means an idyll, however, presenting challenges in the form of a lack of food, sleep (complete with a 4am wake-up call) and “a lot of the conveniences of civilisation.”

Despite this, needs must, and Lameira agrees that there is more to know. This could just be the beginning of a whole new branch of research here at Durham.

Photograph: The Evo Man via Flickr

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