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Pioneering research investigates what great apes can teach us about the evolution of speech

Professor Gillian Forrester, Lead Researcher, recently featured in a short documentary and news article by New Scientist magazine, that highlighted her research and how humans are not as unique as we’d like to think.

Professor Gillian Forrester interacts with a gorilla
Professor Gillian Forrester interacts with a gorilla

Language makes humans different to other animals, but how language emerged through evolution remains a mystery.

One of the skills considered important for the evolution of language is tool use, and solving problems by moving objects with our hands and using tools can help us learn how to communicate.

With this in mind, Professor Gillian Forrester, Professor of Comparative Cognition at Birkbeck, and Dr Georgina Donati, Birkbeck researcher, developed a range of puzzle boxes with edible rewards inside them, to test different kinds of problem-solving skills. Experiments have been taking place with chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans at Twycross Zoo and gorillas at Aspinall Foundation’s Port Lympne Wild Animal Park, looking at how different ape species use their hands to solve the puzzle box problems. The next stage of the project will see young human children aged 18 to 36 months tasked with solving the same puzzles, and the project will compare how they fare against the other animals, and also if their puzzle box solving ability has a relationship with their language-level ability.

New Scientist, the world’s most popular weekly science and technology publication, has been following the research and has released a video on the project as well as a news article.

Professor Gillian Forrester commented: “We have a theory that how we use our hands and how we make and use tools, lays the groundwork in our brain for how we use and make language. Two behaviours that might look very different on the surface might actually be powered by a similar set of brain processes, and so our study is looking at how those two things are related.

“We have a direct connection with all the apes that share the planet with us and share many of their capabilities. As humans, we didn’t always have language, and it had to emerge out of something else. We are trying to answer the question: what were the behaviours that helped us build a language system over evolutionary time? About six million years ago, we shared a common ancestor - chimpanzees and gorillas. That means we will have inherited similar kinds of brains, bodies, and behaviours. Understanding what we’ve shared allows us to understand our own evolutionary journey.

“Patterns of results of child development studies suggests that young children with good dexterity and object manipulation skills tend to develop typical language skills, whereas children with weaker dexterity and object manipulation skills tend to develop weaker language skills. In this way we can see how the evolution of language may still influence the development of language in modern human children. In the future, we may be able to use motor development as a risk marker for language disorders. So, by understanding typical and atypical development, the earlier we see motor development isn’t unfolding typically, this would then allow us to develop new types of innovations and therapies that could help individuals much earlier.”

Professor Forrester recently held a two-day public engagement event at Twycross Zoo to educate the general public about great apes and the research project. Visitors to the zoo were encouraged to take part in the puzzle box challenge, to see if they could solve the problem like the great apes could.

The research project, Hand to Mouth: The Role of Tool-Use in the Evolution and Development of Language, is funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

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