Scientists say orangutans can ‘talk’ about the past JUST LIKE US

The evolution of language converted a defenceless naked ape into a world-dominating force. It fundamentally transformed how humans transmit information and knowledge. A large and potent component of language is our ability to communicate about things that are not here, that happened in the past, or that will happen in the future. This feature of language is known as “displaced reference”.

Displaced reference is universal across the world’s languages and pervades our daily lives. In fact, to speak about the present moment has become a rarity nowadays, though noticeable exceptions are when we comment about the weather, ask for the salt over the dinner table, or talk with very young children.

Displaced reference unshackles speakers from the present. The magnitude of information that becomes available to individuals (or species) capable of displaced reference is therefore immeasurably greater than individuals (or species) strictly living in “the here and the now” – which is the bulk of the animal kingdom.

[embedded content]

So far, besides humans, only social insects are capable of displaced reference. It is remarkable how honey bees (and their tiny brains) can communicate, for instance, about the location of distant food sources to other bees in the hive.

The discovery of this fact merited a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for Karl von Frisch in 1973. Displaced reference in social insects spawns many fascinating – and unanswered – questions about animal intelligence and what the minimal viable intelligence systems for a particular cognitive capacity are.

However, biologically, bees and other insects are far apart from humans and can tell us very little about how language evolution played out among our ancestors. Lacking examples in vertebrates, mammals, or non-human primates, including great apes – our closest relatives – scientists literally had no clues about how this capacity came about in humans. But this is the new jigsaw piece that wild orangutans are bringing to the puzzle of language evolution.

The missing link?

In the low mountain rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia, our team simulated a natural encounter with a predator to study the vocal responses of wild orangutan females. The set up consisted of a human researcher, disguised as a forest big cat, parading on all fours across the forest floor in front of the orangutan females.