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Lots of animals communicate. Only humans have the ability to talk as we know it. Our closest evolutionary relatives, the primates, are largely confined to grunting and a few other basic noises, except, that is, for a rather chatty monkey in Ethiopia called the gelada. As NPR's Gregory Warner reports, it's giving scientists a peek back in time. It might reveal what drove our earliest ancestors to develop their verbal agility.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE GELADA MONKEY)

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: This sound represents a feat of facial coordination such that no nonhuman primate can pull it off, except for a monkey known as the gelada. This particular sound...

(SOUNDBITE OF THE GELADA MONKEY)

WARNER: ...is the wabble.

MORGAN GUSTISON: OK. So what's interesting with a wabble is they're smacking their lips together, they're changing their face, their facial structure and they're vocalizing at the same time.

WARNER: I reached Morgan Gustison at her office at the University of Michigan where she's getting her PhD in biopsychology because she's writing what might be called the first ever gelada dictionary.

GUSTISON: It's kind of like a dictionary because I would love to see if strings of sounds might mean different things.

WARNER: Which is particularly difficult since those strings of sounds don't use words as we know it. And so with the help of a grant from the National Geographic Society, she's been going back and forth with her tape recorder to the only place that geladas live, high in the mountains of Ethiopia. We're like 12,000 feet up, right?

GUSTISON: 10,300.

WARNER: At their research site in the National Park, I meet Marcela Benitez, a colleague of Gustison.

MARCELA BENITEZ: Do you see them on the hill over there?

WARNER: Before I got here, my vague sense of what primate field research looked like involved a long trek through dense brush, delicately approaching a band, gradually winning their trust. Gelada research is nothing like that. You pull up in your car. You'll find hundreds of them out in the open hills munching on grass - hundreds. There's so many monkey families, the researchers have to name each family by letters and use radios to keep track.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes, (unintelligible)

WARNER: Which brings us to the most interesting thing about gelada society.

BENITEZ: Ds are by themselves over here. Cs are missing.

WARNER: When you have so many monkey families living in these shifting alliances...

BENITEZ: The other ones are down there with the Ns and the Js, which usually hang out with the Ms and the As.

WARNER: ...something takes place which might unlock the key to their verbal agility. Geladas are always encountering...

BENITEZ: Strangers.

WARNER: ...strangers.

BENITEZ: And that's actually really rare for most nonhuman primates, you know every single person in your group.

WARNER: There's a hierarchy.

BENITEZ: You know, he's more dominant than I am, therefore, I'm not going to fight anymore. He's really dominant. I'm going to mate with him. But if you are gelada and you live in these massive, massive social groups...

WARNER: Of up to 1,000 monkeys, that pecking order breaks down. You don't remember every face. So one of the theories these scientists are testing is that geladas use complex strings of sound rather like a guy on a soap box to quickly win over a crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF GELADA MONKEYS)

WARNER: Now, in order to get at this question, researchers first have to learn the social dynamics. Gelada males are polygamists. One male has many females, which leaves a lot of frustrated unattached bachelors sending threatening calls from the fringes. Benitez calls them...

BENITEZ: Frat boys.

WARNER: Frat boys.

BENITEZ: They look hungover, they spend a lot of time together, and then all of a sudden they decide they're going to cause problems. And everyone's afraid of them, and no one wants them around.

WARNER: Complicating this macho ritual, geladas are a female-choice society.

BENITEZ: He's trying to copulate with her.

WARNER: So the females decide who to accept and who to rebuff. She refused him?

BENITEZ: Yep. She walked away.

WARNER: And it's not only the frat boys that start the fights.

BENITEZ: Oh, yeah. It was a group of females who started this.

WARNER: The females started this.

BENITEZ: Yep. And the females are going at it and males are coming to their females defense. And behind the As, you can see that the females are now fighting behind the males.

WARNER: Two polygamist families are facing off. There's a lot of shouting, no actual fighting yet.

BENITEZ: You're hearing vocal screams. The ah, (unintelligible) vocal threats. They're more that than a vocal threat.

WARNER: Just as that storm of aggression mysteriously passes, the male returns to his females and he delivers a soliloquy.

(SOUNDBITE OF GELADA MONKEY)

BENITEZ: So he just came back to his females and gave vocal inhale, vocal exhale, a series of moans and a vocal inhale again.

WARNER: Whatever he said, it convinced the whole family to pick up and walk off together like nothing happened.

BENITEZ: Females came along with him. Tensions are down.

WARNER: If you listen as closely as Morgan Gustison has, she's videotaped hundreds of these post conflict soliloquies, what the male gelada might be doing is...

GUSTISON: Calming down the situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF GELADA MONKEY)

GUSTISON: Saying like, oh, everything's all right, I'm cool, I'm not hurt. Yeah, just not with words, but their showing it through their song.

WARNER: She says other primates will do this post conflict reconciliation with physical grooming. But geladas seem to get in a lot of emotional bonding by vocalizing, which suggests one way that our earliest ancestors might have evolved the ability to speak.

GUSTISON: It broadens our ideas about the origins of language, so a lot of us have focused on a referential side of language.

WARNER: Being able to say, good hunting here, this mushroom poisonous and so on. But long before our earliest ancestors ever formed sentences, Gustison says we might have been limbering up our lips and throats and tongues just to send each other sounds of comfort, of warning and of encouragement like we do now with babies before they learn to talk.

GUSTISON: Because we are a social species and our relationships are important, you know, like, I'll get off the phone with my mother and I can't remember half the things I say, but I do know that, you know, I remember whether or not it was good conversation. So that's kind of the point here is we want to see, you know, well, besides the semantics, what else is important about complex vocal communication that could be kind of like a precursor of language.

WARNER: She says, early man might have taken his first steps towards language as much to represent the outside world as just to find ways to relate to each other and make that big, strange world a little bit less lonely. Gregory Warner, NPR News.

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