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13 Ways Orangutans Are Just Like Humans

Here are some of the human-like traits you'll be surprised to discover in these shaggy red-haired great apes, our closest relatives in the world.

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Semi-wild rehabilitated Orangutan coming down from the trees to get food from tourists
Rita Enes/Shutterstock

They have a hairline

It’s the physical traits, rather than the strictly genetic ones, that researchers say link orangutans so closely to humans. One of those traits: “Humans and orangutans actually have a hairline,” in contrast to virtually all primates, Jeffrey Schwartz, co-author of a paper on the connections between us, told National Geographic.” We both have hair that “comes down to the top of the eyes.”

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Bornean orangutan playing and hanging on the tree. Portrait shot. Bali, Indonesia.
Gekko Gallery/Shutterstock

They have similar mouth features

Orangutans share at least 28 physical traits with humans; that’s 26 more than chimps and 21 more than gorillas. Inside our mouths, we’ve both got flat molars that are covered with a thick layer of enamel. And, according to researcher Schwartz, “A hole in the roof of the mouth that was supposedly unique to humans is also present in orangs.”

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old orang utan monkey portrait while looking at you
Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock

They age like we do

Orangutans, as well as other great apes, age similarly to humans, found researchers publishing in Veterinary Pathology. Humans live longer than all other great apes, but other than that, we all suffer from tooth, bone, and muscle mass loss; sensory impairment; cardiovascular disease; hair loss and graying; frailty; and arthritis, a condition that can take on 100 different forms in humans. Check out the signs of evolution you can still find on your body.

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Female orangutan sitting on the fence in Semenggoh Nature Reserve, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia
Mazur Travel/Shutterstock

Brains, bones, and blades

Other tell-tale features that link orangutans to humans, to the exclusion of chimps, bonobos, and gorillas? According to National Geographic, they have “greater asymmetries between the left and right side of the brain, an increased cartilage-to-bone ratio in the forearm, and similarly shaped shoulder blades.”

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Female orangutan and her baby in the rainforest
michel arnault/Shutterstock

They bond with Mom

“Probably only humans have a more intensive relationship with their mothers,” according to Orangutan Foundation International. “Primatologists believe that orangutans have such long ‘childhoods’ because there is so much that they need to learn before they can live alone successfully.” Juvenile orangutans hang with mom till they’re about 8 years old, and nurse for pretty much the whole time.

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orangutan indonesia
Lintang Hakim/shutterstock

We share signs of pregnancy

Cheryl Knott, a biological anthropologist who studies orangutans in Gunung Palung National Park in Indonesia, made her own startling discovery about the similarities between humans and these shaggy red-haired great apes. “[W]e and orangutans are so similar that Knott can use standard drugstore test kits on urine from female orangutans to determine whether they’re pregnant,” reported National Geographic.

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An orangutan touching a human hand
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We have a common ancestor

One of the most controversial things Schwartz and his fellow researcher John Grehan concluded in their study was that humans and orangutans share a common ancestor that is not shared with other great apes. “We infer that the human–orangutan common ancestor had established a widespread distribution by at least 13 Ma [mega annum, or million years],” Schwartz and Grehan wrote. Sadly, orangutans made our list of wild animal species you didn’t know were endangered.

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The orangutans are three extant species of great apes native to Indonesia and Malaysia. Orangutans are currently only found in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. 

They laugh

“Perhaps the most humanlike behavior is the laughing by apes when they are being tickled,” Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, told LiveScience. “It is low-pitched compared to human laughter, but the facial expression and the waxing and waning of the laughing sounds are eerily human to the point that those of us familiar with these vocalizations cannot stop ourselves from laughing too.”

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Close up of orangutans, selective focus.
tristan tan/Shutterstock

They can recognize faces

Actually, this is not a trait that’s specific to orangutans, or to great apes; even sheep, cows, and dogs can recognize each other—as well as human faces. But since these other animals are all social, and orangutans are largely solitary creatures, the ability takes on special poignancy and scientific relevance, especially when considered in conjunction with the fact that orangutans can also recognize faces they last saw long ago, according to a research paper in PLoS One.

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Funny portrait of a group of orangutans, including two mothers with their young offspring, enjoying a snack of sunflower seeds.

They “talk” about the past

Recent findings suggest that orangutans can recall their history. As Science magazine reports, “When wild orangutans spot a predator, they let out a loud ‘kiss-squeak,’ a call that sounds like a human smooching. That noise tells tigers and other enemies, ‘I’ve seen you,’ scientists believe, and it also lets other orangutans know danger is near. Now, researchers report having heard orangutans making this call long after predators have passed—the first evidence that primates other than humans can ‘talk’ about the past.” Orangutans are only one of the animals that you didn’t know could talk.

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Orangutan and his son eating some dishes in the Spilok park
Unai Huizi/Shutterstock

They learn from each other

It wasn’t so long ago that humans believed we were the only species that taught each other things that related to our own specific experiences. Not so, according to Orangutan Foundation International. In fact, orangutan populations in Borneo “use handfuls of leaves as napkins to wipe their chins while orangutans in parts of Sumatra use leaves as gloves, helping them handle spiny fruits and branches, or as seat cushions in spiny trees.”

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A female orang-utan sharing a kiss with her baby in their native habitat. Rainforest of Borneo.
David Evison/Shutterstock

They pass that learning on to the next generation

Social learning that gets passed down through multiple generations is a building block of culture, and “the existence of culture in humans [was thought] to be one of the key factors that differentiates us from other animals,” writes Olivia Solon in Wired UK. But the fact that orangutans can do it, too, means that “culture in humans and great apes has the same evolutionary roots.”

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Animals in wild. Portrait of orangutan female and cute baby monkey breast feeding at tropical rainforest. Sumatra, Indonesia
Perfect Lazybones/Shutterstock

They show us links to our past

What all this communicating in orangutans means is both simple and profound: “Orangutans exemplify how our ancestors probably communicated beyond the here-and-now about the past, and possibly the future, even before they had uttered their first word. Together with mounting evidence, great apes are helping scientists build a clearer picture of our ancient ancestors as they moved towards fully fledged language,” says Adriano Reis e Lameira in The Conversation.

Lela Nargi
Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering science, sustainability, climate, and agriculture for Readers Digest, Washington Post, Sierra, NPR, The Counter, JSTOR Daily, and many other outlets. She also writes about science for kids. You can follow her on Twitter @LelaNargi.