Language Ability in Ancient Primates ?

Researchers say understanding relationships between words in a sentence is a trait that evolved at least 30 million years ago. Sara Rigby, PA Science in BBC Science Focus. October 2020.

It is thought that the earliest forms of language began to take shape with the arrival of anatomically modern Homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago. However, the capacity for language evolved somewhere between 30 and 40 million years ago, scientists believe.

Gorillas.Dušan S, courtesy Unsplash

Researchers say the ability to understand relationships between words in a sentence – a key foundation in language processing – may have come from the last common ancestor of monkeys, apes and humans.

“This indicates that this critical feature of language already existed in our ancient primate ancestors, predating the evolution of language itself by at least 30 – 40 million years,” said Professor Simon Townsend at the University of Warwick, who led the study published in Science Advances.

Read more about the origin of language:

Prof Townsend and his colleagues examined language processing abilities in chimpanzees, humans and common marmosets – a Brazilian monkey. The researchers wanted to see how primates process relationships between individual tones in a string of sounds – much like words in a sentence.

They did so by looking at words which are next to one another – known as an adjacent dependency – as well as words that are distant to one another – known as a non-adjacent dependency.

The team said that being able to process relationships between words in a sentence is one of the key cognitive abilities underpinning language.

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