Research by scientists at the Max Planck Society has shown that chimpanzees can communicate with each other in a more advanced way than we thought. Our evolutionary cousins use a system of sounds and vocalizations with a specific structure, reminiscent of the structure of languages.
Humans are the only animals in the world that communicate orally. From childhood, we learn to arrange sounds in words and words in sentences. The evolutionary origin of languages is a mystery to this day. To solve it, scientists conducted a study of the sounds made by our closest evolutionary cousins.
Thousands of pronunciations, 12 kinds of letters
The study was conducted by scientists from the German Max Planck Society and the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in the Tau National Park in Côte d’Ivoire. In the experiment published in Communications Biology, they analyzed the sounds made by wild chimpanzees from three different groups. The animals lived in their natural habitat, and the scientists had no influence on the social structures of the monkeys.
In total, the researchers were able to record thousands of different sounds belonging to 12 types of calls. Analysis of the data showed that chimpanzees communicated with each other using sequences consisting of several species or even several calls. The individual sounds had their own arrangement that resembled the primitive structure of sentences.
“The vocal communication system among chimps is more complex and formal than we thought,” says Tatiana Bortolatto, one of the study’s authors.
The researchers stress that such a complex and orderly system of communication in non-human primates has not previously been documented.
The syntax is human
The results obtained by scientists give us insight into the process of language formation. As Emiliano Zaccarella, co-author of the study, points out, “Grammar is the hallmark of human dialects, and to discover their origins, we need to know how the sounds of other primates are structured.”
The secret of communication lies in grammar. Scientists estimate that most of the world’s languages use fewer than 50 different sounds, and it is the way we combine them that allows us to have an infinite number of meanings. Primates communicate with each other using about 38 sounds, but so far they have not been analyzed in detail.
“This is the first study in a larger research project,” explains Catherine Crockford, a co-author on the study. “We hope to gain new insight into where we come from and how our language skills have evolved by studying chimpanzee vocal sequences,” she added.
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