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Can Orangutans Beatbox?

An orangutan.
Credit: CHUTTERSNAP / Unsplash.
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A study led by the University of Warwick reveals that orangutans are capable of producing two distinct sounds simultaneously, akin to songbirds and human beatboxers. This finding sheds light on the evolution of human speech and suggests that the vocal abilities of great apes have been underestimated.

Key Takeaways

  • Orangutans have been found to produce two separate sounds simultaneously, similar to songbirds and human beatboxers.
  • The study provides insights into the evolution of human speech and beatboxing.
  • The research suggests that the vocal abilities of great apes have been underestimated, highlighting potential links to the evolution of human language.
  • Orangutans can make two separate sounds simultaneously, much like songbirds or human beatboxers, according to a study led by the University of Warwick.

    Academics say the findings provide clues around the evolution of human speech, as well as human beatboxing.

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    Scientists observed two populations of vocalising orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra across a total of 3800 hours and found primates within both groups used the same vocal phenomenon.

    Dr Adriano Lameira, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Warwick said: “Humans use the lips, tongue, and jaw to make the unvoiced sounds of consonants, while activating the vocal folds in the larynx with exhaled air to make the voiced, open sounds of vowels.

    “Orangutans are also capable of producing both types of sounds—and both at once.

    “For example, large male orangutans in Borneo will produce noises known as “chomps” in combination with “grumbles” in combative situations. Female orangutans in Sumatra produce “kiss squeaks” at the same time as “rolling calls” to alert others of a possible predator threat.

    “The fact that two separate populations of orangutans were observed making two calls simultaneously, is proof that this is a biological phenomenon.

    Co-author and independent researcher Madeleine Hardus added: “Humans rarely produce voiced and voiceless noises simultaneously. The exception is beatboxing, a skilled vocal performance which mimicks the complex beats of hip hop music.

    “But the very fact that humans are anatomically able to beatbox, raises questions about where that ability came from. We know now the answer could lie within the evolution of our ancestors.”

    According to the authors, the vocal control and coordination abilities of wild great apes have been underestimated compared to the focus on the vocal abilities of birds.

    “Producing two sounds, exactly how birds produce song, resembles spoken language but bird anatomy has no similarity to our own so it is difficult to make links between birdsong, and spoken human language,” continued Dr Hardus.

    The new research has implications for the vocal capabilities of our shared ancestors and for the evolution of human speech—as well as human beatboxing. Dr Lameira said: “Now that we know this vocal ability is part of the great ape repertoire, we can’t ignore the evolutionary links.

    “It could be possible that early human language resembled something that sounded more like beatboxing, before evolution organised language into the consonant – vowel structure that we know today.”

    Reference: Lameira AR, Hardus ME. Wild orangutans can simultaneously use two independent vocal sound sources similarly to songbirds and human beatboxers. PNAS Nexus. 2023;2(6):pgad182. doi: 10.1093/pnasnexus/pgad182

    This article has been republished from the following materials. Article summaries may be generated using fact-checked AI models. Note: material may have been edited for length and content. For further information, please contact the cited source.