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Dr Kate Arnold, Dr Simone Pika, Dr Katie Slocombe and Dr Klaus Zuberbuhler, University of St Andrews

What communication abilities do we share with our primate relatives?

Researchers at the University of St Andrews are studying modern primates for insight into the evolution of language in humans.

The use of verbal language is the most complex behaviour in living beings, and unique to humans. How humans acquired the ability for normal speech production is still a mystery to scientists. Recent research indicates our hominid ancestors may have lacked some of the key abilities for speech until as little as 200,000 years ago. The researchers believe the cognitive capabilities for language processing are substantially older, and developed over millennia before the advent of speech in humans.

“We are researching non-human primates to better understand how language may have evolved,” says Dr Klaus Zuberbuhler from the University of St Andrews. “By observing the communications skills and social cognition of a variety of monkeys and apes, we are noticing a number of key skills present in these primates that are likely to have played an important role in the eventual language evolution of humans.”

Primates use vocal and gesture signals to communicate important events, location of food or the threat of a predator. Studying these nuances in primate communication will help scientists to understand what skills are shared with other species, and what are uniquely human.