The Human-Fostered Gorilla Koko Shows Breath Control in Play with Wind Instruments


  • Marcus Perlman
  • Francine G. Patterson
  • Ronald H. Cohn


Breath control is critical to the production of spoken language and commonly postulated as a unique human adaptation specifically for this function. In contrast, non-human primates are often assumed to lack volitional control over their vocalizations, and implicitly, their breath. This paper takes an embodied perspective on the development of breath control in a human-fostered gorilla, examining her sound play with musical wind instruments. The subject Koko was video recorded in her play with plastic recorders, harmonicas and whistles. The results show that Koko exercises volitional control over her breath during instrument play. More generally, the findings suggest that all great apes share the potential to develop breath control, and that the original adaptive value of breath control was its flexible development for the service of behaviors that happened to be useful within particular sociocultural and physical environments.