Orangutan News: Orangutan’s Vocal Feats Hint At Deeper Roots of Human Speech

Rocky spent his first few years raised by people, and is particularly attuned to human speech and behavior, researchers say. But his remarkable ability to learn and match human pitch and common sounds of speech surprised them. MarknKaser/Courtesy of Indianapolis Zoo

by Jon Hamilton for npr

An orangutan named Rocky is helping scientists figure out when early humans might have uttered the first word.

Rocky, who is 12 and lives at the Indianapolis Zoo, has shown that he can control his vocal cords much the way people do. He can learn new vocal sounds and even match the pitch of sounds made by a person.

“Rocky, and probably other great apes, can do things with their vocal apparatus that, for decades, people have asserted was impossible,” says Rob Shumaker, the zoo’s director, who has studied orangutans for more than 30 years.

Rocky’s abilities suggest that our human ancestors could have begun speaking 10 million years ago, about the time humans and great apes diverged, Shumaker says. Until now, many scientists thought that speech required changes in the brain and vocal apparatus that evolved more recently, during the past 2 million years.

This excerpt from a news article appeared in and is courtesy of npr and can be viewed in its entirety here.

Dr. Rob Shumaker is a member of the Orangutan Conservancy Board.

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