The mysteries of language evolution revealed by orangutans

Canadian researchers reveal that orangutans have distinct and ever-changing “vocal personalities”. This new study also demonstrates that the language evolution of these great apes is intimately shaped by their social interactions. In addition to the scientific advance on knowledge related to primate culture, this study also allows us to deepen our understanding of the origin of human language. Man often forgets that he is just one mammal among others. Explanations.

The new study published by Canadian researchers in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution[1]reveals that the language of orangutans is not only made up of different types of slang, but is also constantly changing.

By studying the alarm calls of 70 individuals from wild communities in Borneo and Sumatra for nearly 6,120 hours at six different observation stations, primatologists found that orangutans were able to compose new versions of their cries, varying in intensity and duration..

The frequency of sounds would be influenced by the density of local communities. According to Adriano Lameira, lead author of the study and a researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick, “In low-density areas, orangutans are more ‘conservative’ and have a repertoire of slang that they constantly revisit and use. As soon as a new scream is used, everyone hears it and the variant is quickly incorporated, which enriches the slang »[2]said in an interview The Guardian.

In addition, the study reports that some great ape communities sometimes exhibited new variations of similar calls, although there was no known exchange between these populationsand that are geographically very distant from each other.

An elaborate and diverse language

Like human languages, this study reports new evidence that the linguistic repertoires of great apes are composed of consonants and vowelsthat can not only be carefully controlled, but also combined to form syllables and used to communicate about past events.

Orangutans on the island of Borneo. Whether native to Borneo or Sumatra, both orangutan species are currently “critically endangered” – Pixabay

According to Lameira, “these new observations confirm that great apes are unique model species and essential for improving our understanding of the origin of the language “.

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Furthermore, the study of the different vocalizations also reveals that denser orangutan populations exhibited greater diversity and further experimentation with new sounds in your vocabulary. In these high-density communities, the animals spontaneously experienced many new sounds varying the pitch and duration of the screams and squeaks. However, many of them were quickly falling into disuse. In contrast, although smaller populations of orangutans invented new calls less frequently, they tended to retain them longer after they were used.

These new findings, therefore, also confirm the theories that human language evolved gradually over the long term, and communication between our ape ancestors was heavily influenced by social factors[3].

The importance of redoubling conservation efforts

Lameira also highlights the importance of protecting orangutans, not only for the well-being of these great apes, but also so that scientists can learn more about the evolution of primates.

“Great apes and their habitat must be preserved if we are to have any chance of unraveling more pieces of the puzzle of language evolution. Indeed, many other clues await us in the lives of our closest living relativesas long as we can guarantee their protection and preservation in nature. Each population that disappears will carry with it irretrievable insights into the evolutionary history of our species. »[4]he declared.

Palm oil exploration in Sumatra. Via

According to the latest IUCN census, all populations of the different species of orangutans continue to decline and are currently all considered “critically endangered”[5]. In question, a “human” way of life that is always more greedy for natural resources.

great apes face considerable loss of habitat, their forests being destroyed for the benefit of livestock (meat farms) and the cultivation of palm oil, as well as the illegal logging that follows. According The Orangutan Project[6], almost 80% of its habitat has disappeared in the last two decades. Today, more than 50% of orangutans live in unprotected forests managed by palm oil, logging and mining companies, causing the deaths of up to 6,000 of these great apes each year. Palm oil is the main cause of extinction of these critically endangered species.

Now, “gardeners” of the forest, Orangutans play an essential role in preserving the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. By dispersing the seeds of the many fruits on which they feed, they directly contribute to the reforestation of the forest and, therefore, play a key role in the regeneration of these essential ecosystems in the fight against global warming.

By accelerating the disappearance of these great apes, we are depriving ourselves not only of an essential actor in the proper functioning of an ecosystem already seriously threatened by our activities, but also of a part of human history. We are consciously eradicating our closest relatives as we sow the seeds of our own extinction. But many humans still think that it would be too “radical” to reverse the economic and cultural model at the origin of this organized disaster…


[1] Lameira, AR, et al., Sociality predicts the vocal phenotype of the orangutan, Nature Ecology & Evolution, March 21, 2022, available at:

[2] Davis, N., “Orangutans use slang to ‘show their coolness,’ study suggests” in the Guradian, March 21, 2022, available at:

[3] Domenech, C., “Orangutans use slang to ‘show their cool side’, study findings” in GEO, 22 March 2022, available at:

[4] Wetzel, C., “Orangutan vocabularies are shaped by socialization with others, just like humans” in Smithsonian Magazine, March 23, 2022, available at:

[5] IUCN, Red List – Orangutan, available at:

[6] The Orangutan Project, orangutan facts, available at:; Booth, J., “Orangutans ‘show their coolness’, using slang, study findings” in plant based news, March 30, 2022, available at:



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