Chimpanzee lip-smacks confirm primate continuity for speech-rhythm evolution

André S. Pereira, Eithne Kavanagh, Cat Hobaiter, Katie E. Slocombe, Adriano R. Lameira

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Speech is a human hallmark, but its evolutionary origins continue to defy scientific explanation. Recently, the open–close mouth rhythm of 2–7 Hz (cycles/second) characteristic of all spoken languages has been identified in the orofacial signals of several nonhuman primate genera, including orangutans, but evidence from any of the African apes remained missing. Evolutionary continuity for the emergence of speech is, thus, still inconclusive. To address this empirical gap, we investigated the rhythm of chimpanzee lip-smacks across four populations (two captive and two wild). We found that lip-smacks exhibit a speech-like rhythm at approximately 4 Hz, closing a gap in the evidence for the evolution of speech-rhythm within the primate order. We observed sizeable rhythmic variation within and between chimpanzee populations, with differences of over 2 Hz at each level. This variation did not result, however, in systematic group differences within our sample. To further explore the phylogenetic and evolutionary perspective on this variability, inter-individual and inter-population analyses will be necessary across primate species producing mouth signals at speech-like rhythm. Our findings support the hypothesis that speech recruited ancient primate rhythmic signals and suggest that multi-site studies may still reveal new windows of understanding about these signals' use and production along the evolutionary timeline of speech.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20200232
JournalBiology Letters
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 27 May 2020


  • Speech-like rhythm
  • Speech evolution
  • Lip-smacks
  • Great apes
  • Chimpanzees


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