Lan­guage:

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE -

Ba­boon barks are found to have dis­tinct hu­man-like vowel sounds.

PARIS — Ba­boon grunts and mat­ing calls may hold se­crets about hu­man speech, ac­cord­ing to a new study sug­gest­ing that the ori­gins of hu­man lan­guage could reach back as much as 25 mil­lion years.

The barks, yacks and wa-hoos of the Guinea ba­boons re­veal dis­tinct hu­man-like vowel sounds, ac­cord­ing to the study pub­lished Wed­nes­day in the jour­nal Plos One by sci­en­tists from six uni­ver­si­ties in France and Alabama.

The au­thors, led by Dr. Louis-Jean Boe of Greno­ble Alpes Univer­sity, stud­ied the acous­tics of 1,335 ba­boon sounds and the an­i­mals’ tongue anatomy.

They cast doubt on the­o­ries that lan­guage de­vel­oped only af­ter the ap­pear­ance of hu­manoids with a low lar­ynx. In­stead, they say their re­search sug­gests that the hu­man vo­cal sys­tem de­vel­oped from abil­i­ties al­ready present in an­ces­tors such as the Guinea ba­boon.

They also found sim­i­lar mus­cles in ba­boon tongues as hu­man tongues — which are key to our abil­ity to make vowel sounds.

“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,” the sci­en­tists wrote.

“The ev­i­dence de­vel­oped in this study does not sup­port the hy­poth­e­sis of the re­cent, sud­den, and si­mul­ta­ne­ous ap­pear­ance of lan­guage and speech in mod­ern Homo sapi­ens,” the study says. “It sug­gests that spo­ken lan­guages evolved from an­cient ar­tic­u­la­tory skills al­ready present in our last com­mon an­ces­tor ... about 25 mil­lion years ago.”

The au­thors say the find­ings “re­veal a loose par­al­lel be­tween hu­man vow­els” and ba­boon vo­cal­iza­tions pro­duced in such com­mu­ni­ca­tions as sound­ing alarm or call­ing to cop­u­late.

Pro­fes­sor Scott Moisik of the Max Planck In­sti­tute for Psy­cholin­guis­tics in the Nether­lands, who was not in­volved in the new study, said its find­ings fit with other re­search — and his own ex­pe­ri­ence lis­ten­ing to pri­mates in zoos and on­line an­i­mal videos.

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