Bridey Heing
August 05, 2015 6:08 am

As an evolutionary ancestor to humans, primates have long been thought to show behaviors that could be linked to humans. Researchers in the Congo, however, may have just found the origin of human language in the bonobo, a species that has been observed making a range of sounds that depend on context. In other words, they can baby talk.

Now, we’re not talking about the baby talk adults make at babies, or even the way babies cry when they need something. The behavior seen in bonobos is closer to the little sounds babies make before they learn to use words and that differ depending on what the baby is trying to communicate.

Psychologist Zanna Clay and colleagues from the University of Birmingham, University of Neuchatel, and St Andrews University were observing bonobos in the wild when they noticed frequent use of what they call “peeps,” or little noises. They started wondering if there was more to these noises than met their ears.

“When I studied the bonobos in their native setting in the Congo, I was struck by how frequent their peeps were, and how many different contexts they produce them in,” Clay told The Guardian. “It became apparent we couldn’t always differentiate between peeps. We needed to understand the context to get to the root of their communication.”

Clay and her team feel they’ve discovered the root of human language in the bonobo, which may have survived in them while being developed into modern language by humans. They also call it “functional flexibility,” or the ability to replace screams and cries with more developed contextual signals.

“We felt that it was premature to conclude that this ability is uniquely human especially as no one had really looked for it in the great apes. It appears that the more we look, the more similarity we find between humans and animals,” Clay told The Guardian.

This possible language is added to a long list of behaviors apes and chimps have shown that could be linked to humans, including counting, solving puzzles, developing family culture, and using tools. These discoveries are, of course, fascinating, but it also points at something much more significant than just trivia — it could be a window into our own evolutionary journey, and the places where humans and similar species diverged.

So next time you are chilling at the zoo, maybe let the baby do the talking with the bonobos.

(Image via Shutterstock)