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One Orangutan Has Learned to Sound Just Like Us

This defies scientists’ former assumption that great apes just couldn’t learn new calls

(DLILLC/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

She chatters. She clicks. She utters vowels and recognizable consonants. And because Tilda, an orangutan, sounds so much like us, she could tell us a lot about the evolutionary link between great apes and humans. 

Scientists have long wondered why apes can’t produce the speech-like patterns already mastered by monkeys. As the Washington Post reports, apes’ inability to move beyond involuntary grunts represents a monkey-to-human evolutionary gap on the scale of 25 million years.

But, in a German zoo, Tilda the orangutan doesn’t just produce the grunts of a great ape. She is able to produce sounds that are much more human. As she opens and closes her lips, her calls begin to take on the sound of human vowels and consonants. And though her accomplishment might seem meager to humans who have already mastered language, it’s something scientists have never observed in another ape.

Tilda can also learn new sounds and use them to do things like ask for food—an even more important accomplishment than making random sounds. This defies scientists’ former assumption that great apes just couldn’t learn new calls; that deficit stood in stark contrast to humans’ constant language acquisition. “The new findings change all of this,” said study lead Adriano Lameira in a statement. “We can now see fundamental similarities [between orangutan and human speech].” 

Tilda’s big breakthrough is a starting point for researchers. Armed with the knowledge that one orangutan can and did modify her calls to sound like humans, scientists can now delve deeper into the potential links between humans and our closest relatives. Plus, recent research showed that human speech may have evolved to help early man make and use tools—if more orangutans develop human-like speech abilities, who knows what they'll be teaching each other?

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