Humans and wild apes share a common language

Humans and wild apes share a common language

Humans share elements of a common language with other apes, including many gestures that wild chimpanzees and bonobos use to communicate.

This is the conclusion of a video study in which volunteers translated the gestures of monkeys.

It was carried out by researchers from the University of St Andrews.

This suggests that the last common ancestor we shared with chimpanzees used similar gestures, and that these may have been a “starting point” for our language.

The results are published in the scientific journal PLOS Biology.

Lead researcher Dr Kirsty Graham from the University of St Andrews explained that this gesture-based way of communicating is shared by other great ape species, including gorillas and orangutans.

“Human infants also use some of these same gestures,” she told BBC News.

“So we had already suspected that it was a shared gestural ability that might have been present in our last common ancestor.

“We are quite convinced now that our ancestors would have started with gesturing, and that it was co-opted into [our] Language.”

This study was part of an ongoing scientific mission to understand this origin story of language by carefully studying communication in our closest cousins ​​the apes.

A graphic showing some of the ways monkeys communicate, including scratching their chests to indicate they want to be treated, shaking a tree to indicate a desire to mate, and waving with their fingers pointing down when they want another monkey to come to them.

A graphic showing some of the ways monkeys communicate, including scratching their chests to indicate they want to be treated, shaking a tree to indicate a desire to mate, and waving with their fingers pointing down when they want another monkey to come to them.

This team of researchers spent many years observing wild chimpanzees. They previously discovered that great apes use a whole “lexicon” of more than 80 gestures, each conveying a message to another member of their group.

Messages like “grooming me” are communicated with a long scratching motion; a mouth swipe means “give me that food” and tearing strips from a leaf with teeth is a chimpanzee flirting gesture.

Translation of monkeys

The scientists used video reading experiments because the approach has traditionally been used to test language comprehension in non-human primates. In this study, they flipped the approach to assess humans’ abilities to understand the gestures of their closest living ape relatives.

Volunteers watched videos of chimpanzees and bonobos gesturing, then selected from a list of multiple-choice translations.

Participants performed significantly better than expected by chance, correctly interpreting the meaning of chimpanzee and bonobo gestures more than 50% of the time.

“We were really surprised by the results,” said Dr Catherine Hobaiter from the University of St Andrews. “It turns out we can all do it almost instinctively, which is both fascinating from an evolutionary communication perspective and really quite boring as a scientist who’s spent years training in do it,” she joked.

Gestures that people can innately understand may be part of what Dr Graham described as “an evolutionary vocabulary of gestures ancient and shared by all species of great apes, including us”.

Follow Victoria on Twitter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *