When it comes to the evolution of language in humans, we have reached a peak. Language has progressed to the point where we’re facing a crisis and struggle to find alternative ways of communicating. We no longer read or write books the way we used to, we send messages through emoji and smiley faces and now we depend on the power of the image that speaks a thousand words.
But our ancestors still depend on the classic ways of using language in order to grow, progress and evolve into adulthood. Recent studies have shown that our suggested bonobo ancestors communicate like humans. Bonobos have the skill to do something human babies have been shown to do, namely use a single sound whose meaning varies based on context. This can be defined as a form of “flexible” communication, previously thought to be specific only to humans.
A team of researchers from the University of Birmingham has discovered this precious insight. The bonobo call which is similar to a human infant’s sound is short, a high pitched “peep” made with a closed mouth. In order to reveal the similarities, scientists have studied the call’s acoustic structure and observed that it failed to change between what they called “neutral” and “positive” circumstances. This suggests that other bonobos who receive the call need to weigh contextual information to discern its meaning.
Researchers led their activity in the native setting of bonobos found in Congo. Our closest relatives used “the peep” in a wide range of situations. Peeps made in negative contexts are acoustically distinct, which could be a result of higher subglottal air pressure during air production. According to their analysis, negative situations are charged, tense and urgent and can produce physical consequences that could alter vocal tones.
According to the new findings, animal vocalization could be linked to specific contexts or emotional states, suggesting that “functional flexibility” has evolutionary roots which could describe the evolution of human speech.
Human babies are used to doing something similarly flexible with language, as they use sounds called protophones, different from highly specific sounds such as crying or laughter, that are known to be made independent of the way they are feeling emotionally. The development of this skill in the first year of life is “a critical step in the development of vocal language and may have been a critical step in the evolution of human language”. Baby bonobos communicate like humans, proof that strengthens the link between our ancestors and ourselves.
Image Source: theguardian.com