Researchers link wild chimpanzee gestures to language evolution

Researchers link wild chimpanzee gestures to language evolution

( -- A Stirling researcher has identified between 20 and 30 manual gestures used by a community of wild chimpanzees, used to communicate with others in a range of activities including nursing, feeding, sex, aggression and defence. At least a third of these gestures may be shared with humans and these similarities may help us to discover how humans evolved language.

Postgraduate researcher, Dr Anna Roberts, found that use arm beckoning gestures to make another approach them, flail their arms to make another leave, use begging gestures to make others pass food and clap their hands to express excitement.

The study is the first to show that wild chimpanzees are so close to humans in terms of their communicative abilities and these gestures suggest that the of humans and chimpanzees must have used similar manual gestures.

Dr Roberts said: “Chimpanzees use these gestures intentionally to elicit a desired response from other chimpanzees and they may be the missing link between ape and human communication”.

“We now know that these gestures must have been in the repertoire of our common ancestor and might have been the starting point for language evolution. Manual gesture in chimpanzees is controlled by the same brain structures as speech in the brain.”

Dr Roberts discovered that chimpanzees not only communicate using manual gestures, but they are able to work out what the signaller means from both gesture and accompanying context.

“Chimpanzees not only use similar manual gestures to humans,” says Dr Roberts, “but the way they use these gestures is also very similar to the way humans gesture and use language. The defining way that people understand communication with others is by figuring out what someone really means by ‘mind-reading’ their intentions and we have discovered that chimpanzees may have a similar ability.

“We are all interested in what distinguishes us from animals and the defining feature of humans is language. Language allows us to co-operate, to learn from each other and to create cohesive society. No other species has been found to have such a complex and flexible system of communication but we know very little about how we came to have language.”

Dr Roberts concludes: “The ability to co-operate and learn from others paved the way for language evolution. If chimpanzees learn the precise structure of their from others, this means that the fundamental cognitive skills required for language evolution are already present in our closest living relatives.”

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Citation: Researchers link wild chimpanzee gestures to language evolution (2012, July 15) retrieved 18 October 2019 from
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Jul 16, 2012
No I didn't evolve from these things; I have a "Special Soul to God." I'm born above such considerations as DNA or haplotypy. All praise teh one treu Gahd!

Jul 16, 2012
No I didn't evolve from these things; I have a "Special Soul to God." I'm born above such considerations as DNA or haplotypy. All praise teh one treu Gahd!


Jul 17, 2012
Language is not a form of gesture. Simple communication is not a form of language. Most gesture is innate and unlearned whereas language must be learned so much so that tribes in New Guinea, for instance, could not understand the languages of other tribes bordering on their territory although they could all communicate via gesture. Thus gesture is to language what feet are footwear or what skin is clothes or what eating is to cooking or what breathing is to whistling or what beating the chest is to music etc i.e. unrelated except for a small common area shared by, but not dependant on, a particular medium e.g. gesture can be utilised by language but language is not built up from or dependant on gesture.

Jul 17, 2012
Language started high up in the brain and then looked for a way out, it did not start low down in gesture and work up. That is why chimps who are taught human symbolic language, e.g. via lexigrams, use it only in the same ways as their gestures and very little, if anything, more and why people who can not speak find some other medium by which to express language, even if they have to invent their own. The evidence from ape studies is overwhelming, and completely ignored by those whose theories were disproved by years of work and study of ape language...but still they come...

Jul 17, 2012
Most social animals have cues and gestures they use to communicate (even single cell organisms communicate). Suggesting these are the basis for a complex spoken language used to convey complex cognitive concepts, is ridiculous.


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