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Humans and Wild Apes Share Common Sign Language

Humans and Wild Apes Share Common Sign Language
Humans and Wild Apes Share Common Sign Language. Credit: Phadke09 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Some apes, like wild chimps and bonobos, use gestures to communicate, and humans can understand these gestures since they are based on a common language.

This is the finding of an experiment in which volunteers watched videos of apes and tried to understand their gestures. Researchers from St. Andrews University conducted the study.

This provides support for the idea that our “starting point” for language may have been comparable gestures used by our last common ancestor with chimps. The study results are published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS Biology.

Gestures used by other species

Dr. Kirsty Graham of St. Andrews University, who led the study, noted that other species of large apes, such as gorillas and orangutans, utilize this gesture-based mode of communication.

“Human infants use some of these same gestures, too,” she said to BBC News. “So we already had a suspicion that this was a shared gesturing ability that might have been present in our last shared ancestor.”

“We’re quite confident now that our ancestors would have started off gesturing and that this was co-opted into [our] language.”

This research is a part of a larger effort by researchers to trace the roots of language by examining how our ape ancestors communicate.

Many years have been spent by this research group studying chimpanzees in the wild. Great apes have been shown to have over 80 different gestures that each have a specific meaning and are used to communicate among the group.

For example, a long scratching motion might mean “groom me,” a stroke of a mouth can mean “give me that food,” and ripping strips of leaves with teeth is a common chimpanzee gesture of flirtation.

Translating apes

The researchers used video playback experiments since this method has previously proven successful in assessing monkeys’ language skills. To determine whether or not humans can understand the gestures of their closest surviving ape ancestors, the researchers in this study used an unusual method and reversed the usual order of things.

The participants viewed videos of the chimps and bonobos gesturing and then chose an appropriate translation from a variety of choices.

Over half of the time, participants correctly understood the meaning of chimpanzee and bonobo gestures, a rate much higher than that predicted by chance.

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

Dr. Graham has proposed the idea of “an evolutionarily ancient, shared gesture vocabulary across all great ape species, including us,” which would include the gestures that people seem to understand naturally.

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