Gibbons talk like our human ancestors used to

The way white-handed gibbons talk to one another is very similar to how our human ancestors used to millions of years ago, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered.

Zoologist Dr. Angela Dassow and computer scientist Michael Coen identified a series of utterances that the small apes use as a method of communication. They have been observing the animals at At Racine Zoo, on the shore of Lake Michigan in Racine, Wisconsin.

Their study has been published in this weeks’ issue of the New Scientist (subscription required).

Assistant Professor Coen, who developed algorithms that recognize the language used by gibbons, says that animals communicate in far more advanced ways that hitherto realized. He and Dr. Dassow are examining the communication methods of other animals too, including dolphins and rats.

Dr. Angela Dassow listening to gibbons

Dr. Dassow listening to gibbons’ utterances at Racine Zoo (Image: Journal Times)

Dassow and Coen say animals produce sounds that they build into sentences with rudimentary grammatical rules.

They have identified up to 26 sounds that gibbons use for communicating, with several meanings, from warnings of approaching predators to expressions of affection.

The Sunday Times quoted Coen, who said “We have recorded a father talking quietly to his daughter.”

Dr. Dassow said:

“Language is a human affair. It transfers conceptual knowledge from speaker to listener and has extraordinarily generalizable descriptive powers. We reevaluate this distinction in the context of vocalizations of white-handed gibbons, demonstrating previously unrecognized complexity and structure in their vocalization.”

Language appears to be far more universal than linguists believe, the researchers say.

About gibbons

Gibbons (Hylobatidae) belong to the group of lesser apes. They are well known for their ability to swing from tree-to-tree with great speed and agility.

White-handed gibbons live in Malaysia, Thailand and Sumatra.

Like great apes, gibbons are also able to walk upright on the ground. When they do so, they hold their very long arms up in the air.

Gibbons are also “singers”. Their voices can travel for miles through the forest. Sometimes whole families “sing” in a chorus. Zoologists believe they make those sounds to stay in contact.

Video – White-handed gibbon singing