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‘Talking’ Monkeys: Gelada Baboons’ Social Lip-Smacking Hints at Human Language Evolution

Posted by addisethiopia / አዲስ ኢትዮጵያ on April 10, 2013

My note: It won’t surprise us if they come up with the idea that Ethiopians owe their ‘evolutionary’ lineage to the Geladas, as other Africans to Gorillas, Asians to Orangutans and Europeans to Chimpanzees?

Well, scientists seem to be fascinated by the lip-smacking vocalizations of gelada baboons, as I once was fascinated by the funny observations of Xi, the African hero from the wonderful San tribe, in the hilarious South African slapstick movie, The God’s Must Be Crazy, Xi thinks whites talk like monkey. LOL!


Are these talking monkeys? Wild gelada baboons, native to Ethiopia, make lip-smacking sounds while socializing that sound surprisingly like human speech.

Geladas, sometimes called gelada baboons, are a highly social species of monkey from the high mountains of Ethiopia that make unique lip-smacking vocalizations to each other called “wobbles.” Wobbles are produced mainly by adult males seeking the attention of females, and are produced by inhaling and exhaling while lip-smacking, punctuated by grunts.

Other primates display non-vocal lip-smacks during social encounters, but geladas are the first nonhuman primates observed to vocalize while lip-smacking. Most other monkeys and apes make vocalizations without moving their lips, jaw, or tongue, and those sounds tend to be monosyllabic and without much variation in pitch and volume.

MonkeyBusinessGeladas’ wobbles, on the other hand, have an undulating rhythm that sounds surprisingly like human speech. The new findings, published today in the journal Current Biology, suggest that lip-smacking vocalizations could have been an evolutionary step towards human speech.

comparing the geladas’ vocalizations to the rhythms of human speech. He recorded and analyzed the rhythm of the wobbles, and discovered that at 6-9 hertz (Hz), they do indeed have a similar frequency to human speech. Like that of human speech, the rhythm of geladas’ lip-smacking wobbles corresponds to the periodic movements of the mouth and allows complexity.

Bergman suggests that lip-smacking may serve the same basic purpose as human language: in addition to allowing the exchange of information, it enhances social interactions.

It is unclear what kind of meaning geladas’ wobbles might carry, but it’s clear from observations of the monkeys that they facilitate social behavior. Geladas live in family units that often combine to form larger foraging bands of hundreds of animals, and spend much of their time sitting, munching on grass, and socializing.

While Bergman’s findings indicate a possible evolutionary pathway for language development, he acknowledges that much more research must be done to flesh out how human speech developed from other forms of animal communication. Many species of animals make sounds structured like human speech, and a gene called FOXP2 has been identified as important to both human language and animal communication.

As Bergman concluded his paper: “There is much to be explored about the evolution of human speech, perhaps most importantly how the production of complex sounds came to represent complex meanings.”

Continue reading…


2 Responses to “‘Talking’ Monkeys: Gelada Baboons’ Social Lip-Smacking Hints at Human Language Evolution”

  1. Might I reply as a linguist with much experience of language development in human children, including one who can’t “talk” in the regular way? Before wanting to bridge the gap between monkeys socialising and the astonishing phenomenon of human language, we need to move away from the idea that “language=communication” or that “language=socialising”. It is so much more! And to me it is, like the leaves on the tree, an indication of a divine mystery in an intelligent creation. Adam according to the account was created as an adult: nowhere in past or present is there an example of a human speech half-formed, of something that is not language being “morphed” into something that is. A quick look at the languages of any of the peoples of the world that Sigmund Freud et al. called “primitive” should dispel any such notion completely! All success to those who investigate the deeper mysteries of animal communication and behaviour – they still don’t know what makes the Arctic tern suddenly fly off to the Antarctic, and then home again months later – and, yes, this can tell us valuable things about what it is to a living creature on this planet. But jumping from ape noises through the Evolutionary anything-goes to me trying to express this in an aberrant Germanic language from a wiggly island off the coast of Europe – an intellectual jump too far, and ignoring so, so many complicating factors.

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