‘Speech-like signature’: Chimpanzees’ lip-smacks rhythm may offer clues about how we learned to talk

skynews chimpanzee lips

The evolution of speech is one of the longest-standing puzzles of evolution. However, inklings of a possible solution started emerging some years ago when monkey signals involving a quick succession of mouth open-close cycles were shown to exhibit the same pace of human spoken language.

In the paper ‘Chimpanzee lip-smacks confirm primate continuity for speech-rhythm evolution’, published [May 27], in the journal Biology Letters, a consortium of researchers, including St Andrews University and the University of York, led by the University of Warwick, have found that the rhythm of chimpanzee lip-smacks also exhibit a speech-like signature—a critical step towards a possible solution to the puzzle of speech evolution.

Just like each and every language in the world, monkey lip-smacks have previously shown a rhythm of about 5 cycles/second (i.e. 5Hz). This exact rhythm had been identified in other primate species, including gibbon song and orangutan consonant-like and vowel-like calls.

Related article:  Viewpoint: Challenging those who claim evolution is ‘just a theory’

However there was no evidence from African apes, such as gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees—who are closer related to humans, meaning the plausibility of this theory remained on hold.

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Now, the team of researchers using data from 4 chimpanzee populations have confirmed that they too produce mouth signals at a speech-like rhythm. The findings show there has been most likely a continuous path in the evolution of primate mouth signals with a 5Hz rhythm. Proving that evolution recycled primate mouth signals into the vocal system that one day was to become speech.

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