Chimpanzee gestures can be understood by fellow primates such as humans

Chimpanzees and bonobos use dozens of gestures to communicate with each other. They might be a request or an instruction. For example, as you can see in the Infographic below, a scratching movement across a chimpanzee’s torso means “please groom me”. Or a directed push would be an instruction to climb onto their back or please move.

Gestures by chimpanzees and bonobos can be understood by humans, a fellow great ape
Gestures by chimpanzees and bonobos can be understood by humans, a fellow great ape. Infographic by MikeB at PoC.

Drs Kirsty Graham and Katherine Hobaiter of the University of St Andrews spent many hours in Africa observing these gestures and decided that they can be understood between different species of great ape and, importantly, also to a large extent by humans, the ultimate great ape.

The research implies that humans have retained an ability to understand this ancient system of communication using gestures by chimpanzees, bonobos and other great apes.

Different species who don’t normally meet in their habitat use the same signs. The report in The Times newspaper is that, in general, humans don’t use these signs but they can understand them.

I think that you will find, by the way, that humans do sometimes use these signs or at least some of them. For example, a flick of the wrist within the world of chimpanzees means “go away”. I’ve seen that action many times before and I am sure that readers have too, in humans.

Dr. Graham believes that if a chimpanzee met a bonobo, they would be able to understand each other through their body language and gestures. It’s a universal language.

The research team recruited more than 5,500 people. They played an online game. They had to watch 20 videos of eight gestures and decide what they meant. They had to choose from four possible answers.

The researchers found that humans performed better than the 25% success rate expected if the response was based on chance alone. When humans interpreted chimpanzee and bonobo gestures, they had a success rate of more than 50%.

Dr. Hobaiter said: “It’s a useful reminder that we are also great apes. And that, even though, today, modern humans have language, we’ve kept some understanding of our shared ancestral system of ape communication.”

Slightly humbling, I’d say but useful in order to ground the arrogant human who thinks he/she is superior to all animals.

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