Bonobos Talk Like Human Infants, Researchers Say

Aug 10, 2015

Photo courtesy of Zanna Clay / Lui Kotale Bonobo Project.

By Sci-News

A team of scientists has found that wild bonobos (Pan paniscus), our closest living primate relatives, communicate in a similar manner to human babies.

The team, led by Dr Zanna Clay from the University of Birmingham, UK, found that bonobos produce a high-pitched call type, known as the ‘peep’, across a range of positive, negative and neutral situations, such as during feeding, travel, rest, aggression, alarm, nesting and grooming. These peep calls are short in duration and produced with a closed mouth.

The scientists looked at the acoustic structure and found that the calls did not vary acoustically between neutral and positive contexts.

It is this similarity in calls made across different emotional contexts that echo the similarities found in human infant vocalizations.

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4 comments on “Bonobos Talk Like Human Infants, Researchers Say

  • Well, Gorillas too then. They seem to being able to communicate their basic needs about as well as my nephew. Might take a while teaching him sign language though.

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  • We have been slow to understand languages in other species because we tend to look for signals similar to what we make. One of the surprising complex languages was the prairie dogs.

    The puzzle for me is it seems as though human language evolved very quickly. That implies it can’t be that big a deal. It is some reworking of components previously used for something else.

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  • “When I studied the bonobos in their native setting in Congo, I was struck by how frequent their peeps were, and how many different contexts they produce them in,” said Dr Clay, who is the lead author of a paper published in the journal PeerJ. “It became apparent that because we couldn’t always differentiate between peeps, we needed to understand the context to get to the root of their communication.”
    The common assumption is that calls of primates are tightly tied to certain contexts and emotional states, whereas many human vocalizations are freed from this. However, pre-linguistic human infants can produce a group of calls, called protophones, independently of their emotional state.
    These types of calls differ from commonly recognized calls such as laughter and crying, and the calls of most animals, which are thought only to be produced in certain contexts.
    “We felt that it was premature to conclude that this ability is uniquely human, especially as no one had really looked for it in the great apes.

    Zanna Clay cites a common (false) assumption, makes up a theory, gathers general impressions that stand in for data, then contrives a story to validate the theory. Poor science. The reference to protophones in human infant vocalization is species-specific and has nothing to do with apes. The baby is running through an acquired/practiced repertoire of sounds that can soon be slotted into the language it learns. The process at the early stages, of course, has no conscious linguistic purpose. The bonobo develops no such repertoire that can later serve a purpose to communicate because its brain lacks the cognitive ability to acquire and use language. Its peep is a peep that remains a peep.

    Clay’s slight of hand packaged in self-deception, is to suggest that animals unlike humans always have a purpose for making a call. Obviously not so. Vocalizations in animals and humans can be self-stimulating in the absence of any apparent purpose. The whimpering and barking of dogs, the mewing of cats, the chirping or peeping of birds and chicks are observed in all kinds of settings devoid of any utilitarian context. I’ve seen parrots in a cage run through their linguistic mimickery spontaneously, reflexively, unconsciously. No one can pretend to know the emotional state of a parrot in the setting but a more plausible interpretation would hit on a sense that the bird is getting some kind of positive feedback by making noise. Anyone who has conversed all night at a wedding reception can appreciate that.

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  • A team of scientists has found that wild bonobos (Pan paniscus), our closest living primate relatives, communicate in a similar manner to human babies.


    pinicus is no closer to humans than troglodyte!

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