Integrations of Multiple Abilities Underlying the Vocal Evolutions in Primates

  • Hiroki KodaEmail author


Language is cognitive systems unique to humans, and other animals never showed such equivalent one. Recent studies have strongly suggested that the language would not be originated solely from one unique ability, but rather it would emerge as a consequence of the integrations of multiple abilities which would be commonly shared with nonhuman animals. These ideas suggest the importance of the comparative approaches for the cognitions and communications between humans and nonhuman animals. Particularly, speech or vocal communications are typical examples of the basic biological components which are all necessary for language emergences. The evolutionary pathway from primate vocal systems to human communication via language systems has been always paid a special attention by many evolutionary biologists. Here I review to focus on the recent progress of the studies in the vocal evolution in the primate lineages, mainly for the two dimensions in the primate vocalizations, i.e., vocal controllability and speech homologous facial expressions in monkeys. The limited ability of vocal production control distinguishes us from other primates. Recent experiments, however, have begun to reveal voluntary vocal control ability in nonhuman primates, showing successful attempts of the vocal operant conditionings. These accumulating findings have concluded the functional expansion of cognitive motor control from hand to mouth, suggesting the possible evolutionary history where the motor cortex expansions from forelimb to larynx would occur in the human evolution. Besides, orofacial action is a crucial component for the speech movements, which are characterized by facial actions of ∼5 Hz oscillations of lip, mouth, or jaw movements. A recent promising candidate homologue for these facial actions is a lip-smacking, a facial display of primates, which seems to be independent of speech. Interestingly, such facial actions are also characterized by stable 5 Hz oscillation patterns of jaw or mandible actions, matching that of speech. Recent studies have confirmed the parallel development and kinematics between speech and lip-smacking actions, suggesting a common neural mechanism for the central pattern generator underlying orofacial movements, which would evolve to speech with a sensory foundation for perceptual saliency particular to 5 Hz rhythms widely observed in primate species. Thus, these stepwise acquisitions of multiple independent components such as vocal controllability or facial actions would be all necessary evolutionary events before speech emergence, and the integrations of the multiple components would be a key to finally establish human speech.


Vocal controllability Facial expression Motor cortex Mandible action 



This review is based mostly on my recent collaborative studies and partially financially supported by MEXT/JSPS KAKENHIs (17H06380, 18H03503, 19H01002). I would personally like to thank my recent collaborators: Takeshi Nishimura, Takumi Kunieda, Aru Toyoda, Takashi Morita, Tamaki Maruhashi, and Suchinda Malaivijitnond for helping me organize the projects. Special thanks to Kazuo Okanoya for his guidance of the most parts of my current research ideas.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Primate Research InstituteKyoto UniversityKyotoJapan

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