Yorkshire scientists help trace evolution of human speech back to primates

The University of York has teamed up with experts from other UK universities and traced the evolution of human speech back to primate communication, in groundbreaking research.

Chimpanzee lip-smacks exhibit a speech-like rhythm, confirming that human speech has ancient roots within primate communication, according to a new study. Photo credit: Catherine Hobaiter

Chimpanzee lip-smacks exhibit a speech-like rhythm, confirming that human speech has ancient roots within primate communication, according to a new study.

The project was a collaboration between the University of York, the University of St Andrews and the University of Warwick.

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Researchers found that, like every human language in the world, chimpanzees produce lip-smacks at a speech-like rhythm of close to five open-close mouth cycles per second.

Professor Katie Slocombe, co-author of the study, from the department of psychology atthe University of York, pictured in action for the groundbreaking research project. Photo credit: other

The findings suggest the vocal systems in human speech have their origins in these primate mouth signals, offering answers to the long-standing puzzle of how human speech evolved.

Professor Katie Slocombe, co-author of the study, from the department of psychology at the University of York, said: "Our study suggests that human speech has deep evolutionary roots and likely ‘piggy-backed’ on rhythmic facial movements that existed in our shared ancestors with other primates."

Previously research had already identified fast-paced mouth signals with a speech-like rhythm in orangutans and several other monkey species, but until now there has been no evidence from African apes, who are more closely related to humans.

The team looked at data from four chimpanzee populations - two wild and two held in captivity.

Their speech was analysed through video recordings collected at Edinburgh Zoo and Leipzig Zoo, and recordings of wild communities including the Kanyawara and the Waibira, both in Uganda.

Lead author of the study Dr Adriano Lameira, from the University of Warwick said the results prove that spoken language was pulled together within our ancestral lineage using "ingredients that were already available" and in use by other primates and hominids.

Dr Lameria said the team found pronounced differences in rhythm between chimpanzee populations, suggesting that these are not the automatic and stereotypical signals so often attributed to our ape cousins.

He said: "Instead, just like in humans, we should start seriously considering that individual differences, social conventions and environmental factors may play a role in how chimpanzees engage “in conversation” with one another.

"If we continue searching, new clues will certainly unveil themselves. Now it’s a matter of mastering the political and societal power to preserve these precious populations in the wild and continue enabling scientists to look further."

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