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Monkey’s Provide Clues Into Social Origins Of Language

November 19, 2008

Researchers say the stereotype of women being the chattier sex may indeed be true.

A research team at Roehampton University in London observing a female-centric group of macaques noticed that the gossipy nature of the monkeys might add weight to the theory that human language evolved to forge social bonds.

Many experts theorize that language replaced grooming as a less time-consuming way of preserving close societal bonds.

The university researchers tested the theory by hypothesizing that species of animals with large social networks, such as macaques, should consider vocal exchanges to be just as important as grooming.

A group of 16 female and eight male macaques living on Cayo Santiago Island off Puerto Rico were observed for three months. The researchers counted the grunts, coos and girneys – friendly chit-chat between two individuals – while ignoring calls specific to the presence of food or a predator.

They noticed that females made 13 times as many friendly noises as males.

Greeno says the results suggest that females rely on vocal communication more than males due to their need to maintain the larger social networks.

The team reported that females were also much more likely to chat to other females than to males.

“This is because female macaques form solid, long-lasting bonds as they stay in the same group for life and rely on their female friends to help them look after their offspring,” Greeno suggests.

In contrast, males, who rove between groups throughout their life, chatted to both sexes equally.

This study marks the first time that sex differences in communication in non-human primates have been identified.

Experts say it is still unclear as to whether early human societies were female-centric, as macaques are. But the team believes their findings support the theory that human language evolved to strengthen ties between individuals.

Those who study primate communication agree that the findings back the theory of language development.

“In all social species, communication helps individuals navigate their daily social lives, usually by influencing the minds and behavior of group members,” said Klaus Zuberbhler from the University of St Andrews in the UK.

“Communication helps resolve the tension between a species’ need to compete and a desire to cooperate”.

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