An Orangutan’s Mimicry Offers Clues to Language’s Origins

Aug 4, 2016

By Nicholas St. Fleur

Orangutan hear, orangutan do.

Researchers at the Indianapolis Zoo observed an orangutan mimic the pitch and tone of human sounds, for the first time. The finding, which was published Wednesday, provides insight into the evolutionary origin of human speech, the team said.

“It really redefines for us what we know about the capabilities of orangutans,” said Rob Shumaker, director of the zoo and an author on the paper. “What we have to consider now is the possibility that the origins of spoken language are not exclusively human, and that they may have come from great apes.”

Rocky, an 11-year-old orangutan at the zoo, has a special ability. He can make sounds using his vocal folds, or voice box, that resemble the vowel “A,” and sound like “Ah.” The noises, or “wookies” as the researchers called them, are variations of the same vocalization.

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2 comments on “An Orangutan’s Mimicry Offers Clues to Language’s Origins

  • bonnie2

    My little sister had a doll that said ‘mamma’ when a string was pulled. After she broke it I took it apart. There was a primitive looking plastic disk with some raised bits on it that went round and flicked a flat, thin piece of plastic that was used as the stylus. After a while of playing with it and turning by hand at random speeds, I found it sounded just like a dolphin. The word ‘mamma’ became a serious of clicks( better for ‘speaking’ under water?)

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