Researchers at the University of Aix-Marseille (France) published a study showing that baboons can master one of the basic elements of reading: the recognition of signs. These results imply that this ability is not unique to language and that he should appear before the evolution of the human species.
Baboons do not have language skills, but they can recognize written words, according to a study published in the journal Science. This finding changes the paradigm of recognition of signs that is inherent to the language and, therefore, to humans.
The baboons, however, are only spotting sequences of letters so they can get fed. They don’t actually understand what the words mean.
“The baboons use information about letters and the relations between letters in order to perform our task… This is based on a very basic ability to identify everyday objects in the environment,” Dr. John Grainger at the Aix-Marseille University told BBC Nature.
Grainger and colleagues have studied a captive group of baboons living in a fenced area in several booths with computers. In the experiment, the monkeys watched the display combinations of four letters and had to discern whether the word made sense or not. If one was right, he received a food reward. In a period of one month and a half, primates learned to discriminate dozens of meaningful words from over 7,000 meaningless.
Scientists think that, in humans and baboons, how to recognize words through letters imitates the way in which we recognize an everyday object as the sum of its parts. “We know that a table is a table when we see a table and four legs arranged in a particular spatial configuration” says the researcher.
Humans orthographic process associated with sound and meaning
“These results with baboons will open the door to many projects related to cognitive ability and reading of other animals,” says Grainger. In addition, scientists are confident that the same cognitive processing is present in other primates.
The ability to recognize specific combinations of letters is known as ‘orthographic’ and is the first step in the process of learning to read. From here, humans orthographic process is assigned to a sound and a meaning, other two fundamental building blocks in the process of reading words. The following steps are more complex and involve the reading of whole sentences and syntax.
“One of our next project will examine how the baboons associate printed words with meanings. There is no reason to believe that we will not succeed, “concludes Grainger.