Researchers played a game with a zoo orangutan to teach him human sounds

By Kelli Bender
Updated August 02, 2016 12:14 PM
Advertisement

Primates are trying to speak our language.

For the first time on record, an orangutan has mimicked human sounds in a conversational context, reports PBS. This breakthrough happened at the Indianapolis Zoo, where researchers from University of Durham in Britain used a learning game to teach a primate these sounds.

“This opens up the potential for us to learn more about the vocal capacities of early hominids that lived before the split between the orangutan and human lineages to see how the vocal system evolved towards full-blown speech in humans,” lead researcher Adriano Lameria told New Scientist about the importance of the discovery.

This success refutes earlier beliefs that orangutans could not control their voices, only making involuntary sounds when provoked. To show these primates had some control over their speech, researchers played a game with Rocky. The eight-year-old ape was rewarded every time he reproduced the noise, including tone and pitch, made by one of the scientists.

When compared to the sounds of orangutans in the wild, Rocky’s controlled noises were noticeably different. Unfortunately, we won’t be holding intellectual conversations with orangutans anytime soon, but this discovery does give humans a window into how our species first learned to speak.