Beatboxing Orangutans And The Evolution Of Speech


Orangutans can make two separate sounds simultaneously, much like songbirds or human beatboxers, according to a study.

Adriano Lameira and Madeleine Hardus observed vocalizing orangutans in the wild. Humans use the lips, tongue, and jaw to make the unvoiced sounds of consonants, while activating the vocal folds in the larynx with exhaled air to make the voiced, open sounds of vowels.

Orangutans are capable of producing both types of sounds—and both at once.

For example, large male orangutans in Borneo will produce noises known as “chomps” in combination with “grumbles” in combative situations. Females in Sumatra produce “kiss squeaks” atop “rolling calls” to alert others of a possible predator threat. Humans rarely produce voiced and voiceless noises simultaneously.

The exception is beatboxing, a virtuosic vocal performance mimicking the complex beats of hip hop music.

According to the authors, the vocal control and coordination abilities of wild great apes have been underestimated compared to the focus on the vocal abilities of birds.

The finding has implications for the vocal capabilities of our shared ancestors and for the evolution of human speech—as well as human beatboxing.

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