Wired‘s Brandon Keim reports on claims by scientists to have observed what might be proto-language among chimpanzees, one based on gestures.
It will be interesting to watch this develop. It is noteworthy that chimpanzees can’t speak because they’re physically unable to, and that other primates like the famous Koko the gorilla have mastered sign language. What was going on unnoticed in the wild?
Scientists have described the communications of chimpanzees and bonobos in new and unsurpassed detail, offering a lexicon for our closest living relatives and even a glimpse into the origins of human language.
The research, contained in two new studies published July 3 in Current Biology, focuses on physical gestures. These are the primary form of communication in bonobos and chimps, used more readily than vocalizations.
One study describes how a certain bonobo gesture conveys an informational complexity not previously observed in non-human great apes. The other study identifies the meanings of no fewer than 36 chimpanzee gestures.
“What we’ve shown is a very rich system of many different meanings,” said primatologist Richard Byrne of Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, co-author of the chimpanzee study. “We have the closest thing to human language that you can see in nature.”
Byrne’s co-author, fellow University of St. Andrews primatologist Catherine Hobaiter, spent 18 months observing a group of chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest Reserve in western Kenya. Hobaiter painstakingly documented more than 4,500 gestures in 3,400 incidents of chimp-to-chimp gesturing, noting both the motions used and the responses of nearby chimps.
Subsequent statistical analysis boiled those observations down to 36 established gestures and 15 clear-cut meanings. (Multiple gestures are sometimes used for the same purpose, perhaps conveying some not-yet-understood nuance.) Stomping two feet, for example, is used to initiate play. Reaching means, “I want that,” and an air-hug embrace is a request for contact.