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Trends Cogn Sci. 1999 Oct;3(10):377-384.

The neuroethology of primate vocal communication: substrates for the evolution of speech.

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  • 1Primate Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Department of Psychology, 33 Kirkland Street, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.


In this article, we review behavioral and neurobiological studies of the perception and use of species-specific vocalizations by non-human primates. At the behavioral level, primate vocal perception shares many features with speech perception by humans. These features include a left-hemisphere bias towards conspecific vocalizations, the use of temporal features for identifying different calls, and the use of calls to refer to objects and events in the environment. The putative neural bases for some of these behaviors have been revealed by recent studies of the primate auditory and prefrontal cortices. These studies also suggest homologies with the human language circuitry. Thus, a synthesis of cognitive, ethological and neurobiological approaches to primate vocal behavior is likely to yield the richest understanding of the neural bases of speech perception, and might also shed light on the evolutionary precursors to language.

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