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Orangutan information broadcast via consonant-like and vowel-like calls breaches mathematical models of linguistic evolution

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Orangutan information broadcast via consonant-like and vowel-like calls breaches mathematical models of linguistic evolution

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Abstract

The origin of language is one of the most significant evolutionary milestones of life on Earth, but one of the most persevering scientific unknowns. Two decades ago, game theorists and mathematicians predicted that the first words and grammar emerged as a response to transmission errors and information loss in language's precursor system, however, empirical proof is lacking. Here, we assessed information loss in proto-consonants and proto-vowels in human pre-linguistic ancestors as proxied by orangutan consonant-like and vowel-like calls that compose syllable-like combinations. We played back and re-recorded calls at increasing distances across a structurally complex habitat (i.e. adverse to sound transmission). Consonant-like and vowel-like calls degraded acoustically over distance, but no information loss was detected regarding three distinct classes of information (viz. individual ID, context and population ID). Our results refute prevailing mathematical predictions and herald a turning point in language evolution theory and heuristics. Namely, explaining how the vocal–verbal continuum was crossed in the hominid family will benefit from future mathematical and computational models that, in order to enjoy empirical validity and superior explanatory power, will be informed by great ape behaviour and repertoire.
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