Gorillas Are Much Closer to Speaking Than We Think

Scientists have assumed that apes are not capable of speaking, due to their lack of proper breathing control and cognitive capacity to preconcert organised speech. What has been believed traditionally, is that any vocal sound gorillas performed was just a spontaneous noise, but now Marcus Perlman from the University of Wisconsin, claims that gorillas may be closer to speaking than we all thought.

How Do We Know?

Perlman and his colleague Nathaniel Clark from the University of California, worked closely with the infamous 40-year-old gorilla Koko, who is known for her ability to communicate with humans using, amazingly, American Sign Language. The researchers, after recording a 71-hour-long video footage of her and then analyzing it, discovered that Koko has developed behaviors which have never been demonstrated by other gorillas. Koko, can blow her nose using a tissue, play wind instruments for fun, cough when researchers ask her to, and chatter into a telephone.

Is Koko Special or Can Gorillas Talk?

Marcus Perlman says that Koko stands on the fine line between gorillas and humans, since her behaviors did not come from being raised in the wild, but from her absorption into a human world: “Koko doesn’t produce a pretty, periodic sound when she performs these behaviors, like we do when we speak, but she can control her larynx enough to produce a controlled grunting sound.” The fact that Koko has been living with humans since she was just six years old is something that leads scientists to believe that all of her ‘special abilities’ are not special at all, because they can all be learned. As Marcus Perlman says, the fact that the human environment she has been living for her whole life is quite different to the things we see in wild populations, is what made her efficient at these uncommon behaviors.

What Does This Mean For Science?

There were a couple of teams of psychologists back in the 1940s, that raised chimpanzees as human children in order to teach them how to speak, but their efforts turned out to be a total failure. That’s when researchers formed an idea that gorillas cannot control their vocalizations and their breathing. However, ­the study that was published by Perlman and Clark, gives important information about our own evolution and how much time humans needed in order to speak. Scientists have reported that the last progenitor with gorillas was around about 10 million years ago and Perlman’s study indicates that the evolutionary groundwork for the human ability to speak was in place at least by that time.


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