Those who think that opera singers sound like a group of screaming monkeys may not be so far off according to a recent study conducted by scientists. It seems that a number of gibbons have very similar vocal structures and techniques to the most accomplished human soprano singers in the opera.
Takeshi Nishimura, the associate professor with the Primate Research Institute at the Kyoto University in Japan states that gibbons, which are known for their distinctive, high pitched cries that they use to communicate through the dense foliage of the rain forest, seem to have extremely similar vocal mechanics to that of opera singers.
This study is a breakthrough, showing how humans and primates have a distinct similarity in evolutionary terms. It also gives an insight to how human speech developed, which is more varied and complex than any other animal on earth.
Scientists believe that human speech is possible because of how the larynx, tongue, and vocal tract evolved to accommodate it. However, Nishimura’s research shows that this may be false, as certain primates like the gibbon have the same vocal structures as humans.
Nishimura explains that gibbons, and most likely other primates have the same voice-box physiology as humans, and that we actually have similar techniques in manipulating sound as well.
Nishimura and his team of scientists studied a young female white handed gibbon in a zoo found in Kyoto. The Fukuchiyama zoo, which housed the young primate allowed the scientists to expose it to helium rich air, which shifts the animal’s vocalization to resonance that is easier to measure with audio equipment. This technique has been used by scientists for quite some time now, whenever animal vocalizations are being studied.
Gibbons in the wild use pure-tones and loud voices to be able to communicate with their brethren though the thick forests. Their distinctive and unique call can be heard at a mile radius. The animals learn this from their parents.
Similarly, human soprano singers use these same techniques in order to make their high pitched voices sound strong and audible. While the technique comes easily to animals like the gibbon which has been doing this for thousands of years, human singers have to take years of training in order to reach a level even close to the ones that come so naturally for gibbons in the wild.
Nishimura says that “While gibbons won’t be mimicking human conversation any time soon, this gives us a new appreciation of the evolution of speech in gibbons while revealing that the physiological foundation in human speech is not so unique.”
Primates and humans are so closely connected evolutionary that even seemingly different physiologies that make people “unique” are actually quite similar. Human speech may not be so different from other animal vocalizations after all, despite the range and the complexity of the human language. It all boils down to what is required of each species in evolution.