Babies And Bonobos Have Much More In Common Than You May Think

Our high-pitched human baby talk may not be so unique after all.

It turns out that baby bonobos — a species of great ape most closely related to humans and found only in the Democratic Republic of Congo — communicate just like human infants do, according to a new study.

The research, conducted by scientists at the University of Birmingham in England and the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland, has implications for how human speech and language evolved.

“Although humans are unique in terms of our amazing speech and language capacities…the foundations underlying these abilities appear to be already present in the last common ancestor we share with great apes,” Dr. Zanna Clay, a primatologist and psychologist at the University of Birmingham who led the study, told The Christian Science Monitor. “The findings suggest the existence of an intermediate stage between fixed vocal signaling seen in most primate calls and fully fledged flexible signaling in humans.”

What is flexible signaling? It’s the ability of human babies to use a single noise in different situations to express positive, neutral and negative emotions. For instance, babies’ coos may sound the same while they are eating, playing, or sad — but we sometimes can tell the difference in their communication based on context. Scientists previously thought this complex communication was unique to human infants.

But it was recently in the Congo where Clay was studying bonobos and she heard their similar complex communication — which she described as high-frequency “peeps” made with their mouths closed. Just have a listen in the video below.

To compare the peeps to human babies’ vocalizations, Clay and her colleagues studied a community of 37 wild bonobos, 18 of which were —> Read More