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Evolution of Speech Through Orangutans

Posted by Brian Spence on Nov 1, 2019 8:00:00 AM

Orangutan, SpeechOne of the necessary parts of speech is voice control, the unique ability to engage our vocal folds to produce sounds at will. Great Apes were believed to be as limited to voice control as other mammals, only being able to produce reflective screams or cries. Recent research has shown that the Orangutans might not be far behind.

As part of this research, scientists gave captive orangutans kazoos at the Indianapolis Zoo. Kazoos or any other instrument in the class of membranophones, require a hum or talking to produce sound, instead of just blowing air into them. The sounds come from a burst of air produced by the movement of our vocal folds when they open and close.

In the study, some of the orangutans were able to produce sound out of the kazoos within minutes. They were able to produce a variety of sounds and pitches for varying durations showing the scientists that it was done by will.

The results show that orangutan voice control isn't far being that of mankind's. Much like kids, the ability lies with the individual orangutan.

The ability to make the kazoo work depends on the individual's interest, capacity, and motivation. This shows that orangutans, like children, will develop the ability of vocal control at different rates and manners even though they live in the same environment. Evidence suggests that wild orangutans also use their ability of vocal control to pass information and communicate between individuals and generations in their natural environments. Wild orangutans will use their cupped hands or leaves as tools to make their voices louder to alert others to predators.

Scientists hope that understanding the extent of the ability of "speech" in great apes will help us understand how humans developed the ability of speech. A new question to be answered is why did humans as a species develop our heightened ability in speaking, but our closest cousins in the animal world did not. Indonesian legend says that the orangutans have had the ability to speak but have chosen not to in fear of humans forcing them into labor. Or is it as simple as it is a different language that humans haven't taken the time to learn? After all their name orangutan does mean "person of the forest".

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