For long, it was assumed that humans were the only primates capable of expressing sounds like vowels – a vital component of speech. Dating our own species gave the history of language a rough breadth of a hundred thousand years.
When Alexander the Great invaded India in 326 B.C., the last thing he expected to see was an army of baboons. Yet, this is exactly what he witnessed in the woods near the Jhelum river, where the primates, on seeing the Macedonian army advance, stood up all at once in organized rows along the hill. For a moment, the Greeks thought they were facing a monkey military. But they soon realized it was just monkey business and carried on with their campaign.
It’s one of the last known sightings of a baboon-resembling creature in India. Today, baboons are endemic only in parts of Africa and Arabia (though fossil records indicate that Gelada baboons once ranged in Northern India, thousands of years ago).
Over the years, studying the behaviour of baboons has helped humankind understand themselves better. Baboons have helped us understand everything from origins of human language to the harmful effects of stress, the signs of early democracy within groups, the feeling of belonging to a clique and even the act of female contraception.
Learning from our cousins
Recent studies have identified that baboons developed the ability to vocalize millennia before homo sapiens – busting a long-held belief that a low larynx was required for the magic act of speech. According to a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE, baboons have been found to express distinct sounds – using vowels. As the paper states:
“It suggests that spoken languages evolved from ancient articulatory skills already present in our last common ancestor with Cercopithecoidea, about 25 [million years ago].”
Earlier studies dated the evolution of language as restricted to humans, and to only around a hundred thousand years back. With baboons now in the mix, it seems like human beings have been late to the conversation.
But baboon-talk goes beyond distinct sounds – an experiment conducted at the Aix-Marseille University in France found baboons able to distinguish between real and fake words. With a sample of six baboons performing over 50,000 trials, they found the primates able to distinguish 500 real words from 7832 nonsense ones with an accuracy rate of 75 percent.
It was by studying baboon mating calls that the researchers found the presence of vowels in their vocabulary. Baboons have five main types of vocalization – grunts, wahoos, barks, yaks, and copulation calls. Of these, only females can produce copulation calls, while yaks are reserved for long-distance communication.
What else have scientists found by studying baboon behaviour?
A troop of baboons can have up to 300 members at a time. These display complex social hierarchies, much like humans. Sometimes, they even show signs of democracy.
Baboon packs follow hierarchies, with an alpha male usually chosen as a leader. While leaders get autocratic pick over food and mates, when it comes to decisions that affect the group they need to have the people’s support. A study identified baboons as having ‘initiators’ – leaders who would march off in the direction he felt the group should travel in. But if the group didn’t like the direction, they wouldn’t take it – simple as that.
We also learn the effects of leadership. Like humans, baboons also reflect the qualities of their leader. When tuberculosis killed off all the vicious alpha males of a tribe of savanna baboons in Kenya, the passive males were all who remained. Scientists quickly observed the group’s dynamics change from militaristic to pacifist, making the baboons more likely to cooperate.
Like us, baboons like to form cliques – companions who share the same age, sex or preferences. And perhaps as a warning to a more closed-off human society, those in cliques demonstrate poorer learning skills than other baboons.
Humans share many commonalities with chimpanzees and gorillas with a genetic similarity of 99 and 98 percent respectively. Baboons themselves are closely related enough that baboon hearts were once used for tissue transfer to humans. In 1984, a human baby on its death bed lived two weeks longer than expected after receiving a heart transplant from a baboon.
The first successful case of cross-species heart transplant was demonstrated in 2016 – where a pigs heart was kept beating within a baboon recipient for two years with success. It paves the way for future inter-species organ transplant.
Though habitat encroachment and hunting by humans challenges baboon, only one of the five species is currently approaching endangered territory – the West African Guinea baboon. With the remaining still on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s ‘Least Concern’ list, man and baboon will have many more years of co-existence. In cities like Cape Town, humans and baboons have lived together for 350 years – though not necessarily in peace.
Humanity has much to learn by looking back along the chain of evolution. In studying primates, we recognize much that is present within our own behavior. If evolution can take us from bring a warlike to a peaceful species, we truly would have learned from nature’s finest.
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