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Can chimpanzees ponder the secrets of the universe?14 min read

June 7, 2022 8 min read

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Can chimpanzees ponder the secrets of the universe?14 min read

Reading Time: 8 minutes

What sets us humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom? Sure, we look different, but so does every other species. We’ve built tools and organized ourselves into communities and societies, but so have other animals. We’ve even advanced a lot further in these tasks than other animals, but why? Well, most scientists chalk it down to the one thing we all love to do: talk. Unlike every other species on this planet, humans have a unique capacity for language, or at least, that’s what we think.

Did you know that there is no single tribe or community in the world that does not possess and speak a language?

The origin of language

So, what is the origin of this language? Is it something we simply possess, like breathing or is it something we’ve learned? Why do we have thousands of languages and not just one? The answer: No one really knows.

Scientists claim that there are between 3,000 and 8,000 human languages.

Sure, we have ideas and theories (some more likely than others). But, even though we’ve unlocked the secrets of space, time, and the nitty gritty’s of the vast universe, when it comes to language, scientists are–well– stumped. That’s right, to the question of where language came from and why humans possess the unique ability to chatter away about the past, present, and future, we have no answer.

A mystery that leaves no trace behind

However, being the inquisitive creatures that we are, we sure haven’t let this mystery go. Usually, when we want answers about the past, we dig them up. Archaeologists head to rocky mountains, plains, and deep oceans to dig up bones and fossils that represent our history. 

A dinosaur fossil

Thanks to this: We know that we shared ancestors with apes like chimpanzees. We also know that the Earth was once populated with massive and terrifying dinosaurs that could crunch on your bones for a midday snack. But speech doesn’t stick around like that. Once it has been uttered, that’s pretty much it. It disappears into thin air. 

I know what you’re thinking: The writers at Owliver’s post need to think a little. What about all this writing they never seem to get sick of? That’s a good line of thought, but while writing only came about 5,000 years ago, speech appeared on the scene a lot earlier. We had already travelled across the planet in cackling herds, fought wars, created civilizations, started farming…and done all sorts of human community stuff. And for a community to grow and develop, one thing is most definitely essential: communication. 


What reasons do you have to believe that spoken language came about before the written word?

So, we’re quite certain that humans started talking a while ago, but how, why, and exactly when, is still a big huge mystery. The question, of course, is, how do you study something that leaves absolutely no trace of itself?

Solve this puzzle in order to find out:

The study of language is known as linguistics. Linguistics refers to the scientific method used to untangle the web of complex human languages.

In a fresh attempt to unlock the mysterious history of language, this time around, a group of scientists spent almost a thousand hours observing chimpanzees, listening to, and deciphering their chatter. What they’ve found could very well be a form of communication that we humans used in the early stages of language.

Why chimpanzees?

Scientists chose chimpanzees for their endeavour since these creatures are humans’ closest relatives. In fact, seven million years ago, we even shared common ancestors.

To this day, 98.8% of our DNA is identical to that of chimpanzees.

What did these scientists find anyway, and do chimpanzees really have their own language? Let’s break it down.

How did they conduct their experiment?

Chimpanzees enjoy a cool bath in Tai National Park.

A group of scientists headed to the Taï National Park in Ivory Coast, a nation in the West of Africa, to observe the chimpanzees who dwell in its sprawling rainforests. They identified 46 untamed wild chimpanzees and set up recording devices in their communities. Finally, the scientists managed to collect a whopping 4826 recordings of chimpanzee chatter! In fact, the scientists had to browse through 900 hours of ‘Grunts’ and ‘Hoos’ to categorize these calls and identify their usage.

Find Ivory Coast on the map:

What exactly were they looking for?

To understand what the chimps were saying.. duh. Well, no, we can’t speak chimp just yet!. The scientists were looking for something far simpler. They were looking for plain old structure. (It’s more exciting than it sounds, just hold on.) Although there is a lot to learn about the history of human language, there is one thing that most scientists are rather clear on. Human language has developed to this magnificent and limitless extent thanks to the grammatical rules or syntax that form a foundation beneath every language.

So, is syntax what scientists hoped to find in the language of the chimpanzees? Well, some simplistic form of syntax. Here are the three structures that they hoped to find. 

The three criteria

While grammar is complex and filled with several rules and patterns, scientists narrowed their criteria down to just three. These three structures are essential to identify the chimpanzees’ calls as structured vocalizations(chimpanzee-speak) rather than a random sound salad. 

Flexibility

Simple singular sounds and calls should be combined with other single sounds to form something new. You can compare singular sounds to syllables such as “ooh”, “aah”, and “tuh”. Check out the image below for all the singular calls that the chimpanzees of the Taï forest make.

Scientists found that singular sounds combined to form longer words or what they called Vocal sequences. So, a ‘Hoo’ and a ‘Grunt’ can combine to form its longer “word” or sound: A Hoo-Grunt.

In order to satisfy the criteria of flexibility, the chimps would have to combine single calls into groups of two. For instance: PS and WH would combine to form PS-WH, or HO and PH would combine to form HO-PH. 

The combination of two single calls is known as a bigram.

Ordering

If chimpanzees’ language is truly flexible, it should also show scope for rearrangement. So, HO-PH should also be able to be uttered as PH-HO. And in that case, it should represent a different “word” or vocalization altogether.

So, if the chimpanzees call out Hoo-Grunt, they should also call out Grunt-Hoos.

But scientists have to be careful not to categorize random pairs of sounds (basically gibberish) as an indication of some kind of structure. That is why they must make sure that these sounds are made frequently in the same order and sequence by several chimpanzees.

For example, while the word chimpanzee has several sounds blended together, but so does the utterance, ‘panzeechim’. However, even if you hear someone say the meaningless word ‘panzeechim’, its rarity and lack of use by others should tell you that it’s total nonsense. Essentially, you’re not going to hear all that many English speakers walking around and calling each other panzeechims.


“One of the most common sequences is the well-described ‘pant hoot’ sequence either as ‘hoo’ plus ‘pant hoot’ or ‘hoo’ plus ‘pant hoot’ plus ‘pant scream’ or ‘pant bark.’ But other sequences are also frequent like ‘hoo’ plus ‘pant grunt’ or ‘grunt’ plus ‘pant grunt.’ In general ‘pant grunt’ and ‘pant hoot’ are the most common calls used in these sequences.”

— Cédric GirardButtoz, Scientist

Chimpanzee’s calls and how often they show up.

Recombination

It’s not enough for two sounds to combine, but scientists also expect these combined sounds to attach themselves to other single calls. These phrases have to be in a group of a minimum of three calls. And once again scientists must test for randomness and ensure that these phrases occur often in a similar order.

One chimpanzee even uttered a call with 10 different calls within it!!!! However, since there was only one instance of this it was most likely random gibberish and not a complex sentence.

The combination of a bigram and a single call is known as a trigram.


“The key finding is the ability of a primate (chimpanzees are primates) other than humans to produce several structured vocal sequences and to recombine small sequences with two calls into longer sequences by adding calls to it. It is important because it shows [us] structured communication which could have been the foundation of the evolution [of] syntax in our language.”

— Cédric GirardButtoz, Scientist

What did they find?

Complete this scavenger hunt to reveal the results of the study.

The study found that chimpanzees can create 390 different vocal sequences!

Wait, can chimps talk in their own language or not!?!

Well, it’s complicated! On the one hand, scientists found and recognised several patterns in the speech of the gorillas, but on the other hand, they have no idea what this stuff means. They have managed to decipher what shorter, singular calls mean. But, single sounds having basic meanings is no different than a dog barking for food or howling in excitement.

And it’s unlikely anyone would say that dogs have a full-fledged language. They can’t really string sounds together or communicate much more than exactly what they’re feeling in a single moment.


It is not a language but it is amongst the most complex forms of communication described in a non-human animal.

— Cédric GirardButtoz, Scientist

Wait, so then what did they find??

They found potential. That’s right. The scientists found that, unlike most animals, chimpanzees have the ability to put sounds together in intricate and unique patterns. Moreover, they noticed that these vocal sequences or strings of chimpanzee calls weren’t simply strung together randomly. Some of these sequences were used so often and by so many chimpanzees that they can’t have been random occurrences. What do they mean? That’s yet to be discovered.

What chimpanzees communicate using single calls, hand gestures, expressions and touch: