Time-space–displaced responses in the orangutan vocal system
One of the defining features of language is displaced reference—the capacity to transmit information about something that is not present or about a past or future event. It is very rare in nature and has not been shown in any nonhuman primate, confounding, as such, any understanding of its precursors and evolution in the human lineage. Here, we describe a vocal phenomenon in a wild great ape with unparalleled affinities with displaced reference. When exposed to predator models, Sumatran orangutan mothers temporarily suppressed alarm calls up to 20 min until the model was out of sight. Subjects delayed their vocal responses in function of perceived danger for themselves, but four major predictions for stress-based mechanisms were not met. Conversely, vocal delay was also a function of perceived danger for another—an infant—suggesting high-order cognition. Our findings suggest that displaced reference in language is likely to have originally piggybacked on akin behaviors in an ancestral hominid.