Have you ever walked past the baboon exhibit at your local zoo and thought, “That one with the big red butt sounds exactly like Uncle Harry!”? I haven’t either (I don’t have an Uncle Harry) but apparently some anthropologists did and it got them thinking about the origins of human speech. The result is a new study which suggests that the physical ability to talk existed 25 million years ago – long before the larynx developed but at a time when the tongue of human ancestors resembled that of the modern Guinea baboon.
Language is a key difference between humans and the rest of the natural world, but the origin of our speech remains one of the greatest mysteries of science.
In their study, Evidence of a Vocalic Proto-System in the Baboon (Papio papio) Suggests Pre-Hominin Speech Precursors, published in PLOS One, scientists from six universities in France and Alabama led by Dr. Louis-Jean Boe of Grenoble Alpes University listened to acoustics of 1,335 baboon sounds while analyzing the anatomy of the baboon tongue. They found “a loose parallel between human vowels” and the sounds baboons make when alarmed or in the mood to mate. (Insert your own baboonish pick-up line here).
This theory moves the physical equipment needed to create the vowel sounds of human speech (which number from three to in the 20s depending on the language) from the low larynx to the tongue, which evolved much earlier. The low larynx or voice box appeared in humans 70,000 to 100,000 years ago. On the other hand (or tongue), the muscles required to make vowel sounds have been present in the ancestors of both humans and apes for millions of years – at least 25 million years ago when the common ancestor of humans and baboons lived.
If baboons have had the ability to make the sounds of speech for 25 million years, why haven’t they developed language? Another recent study on a long-tailed macaque determined that it has the throat and jaw anatomy to make human sounds but not the mental ability.
Could baboons prove this theory wrong? The vocal sounds they make include grunts and barks, a “yak” sound when alarmed and that call for copulation, which is only made by females. One more sound, made only by males, is the two-syllable “wahoo.” If a male baboon says “wahoo” after the female issues the copulation call or after they mate, isn’t that a language that’s awfully similar to humans?
More research is obviously needed. However, just to be on the safe side, never say “Wahoo!” when walking past a female baboon while you’re within earshot of her big male mate.