Baboon sounds may hold key to origins of human speech

Claudine Zap

They may not sound familiar, but the gurgling and lip-smacking noises made by gelada baboons could shed light on the origins of human speech, researchers say.

Thore Bergman, assistant professor at the University of Michigan and head author of a study that looked at the primates, told Yahoo News in an email that geladas made perfect subjects. He wrote, “I knew that geladas had several features that made them interesting research subjects—including large, complex social groups and a diverse repertoire of sounds.”

In fact, only gelada baboons, found in Ethiopia, have been found to make these specific kinds of vocalizations.

Researchers tracked dozens of these baboons in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains National Park, where they recorded their voices on Palm Pilots.

The findings, published in Current Biology and surfaced by BBC News, assert that the vocalizations share similarities with human ancestors’ early speech.

“The finding supports the hypothesis that others had previously proposed—that lip-smacking may be a potential precursor to speech because it shows that primates can indeed vocalize while lip-smacking to produce complex sounds," Bergman told Yahoo News.

Bergman further explained to the BBC that the next step is to study the purpose of the sounds, which he believes the gelada use to bond with each other—sort of baboon-style small talk.