Signs used by monkeys understood by humans

Humans understand the “signs” or gestures that wild chimpanzees and bonobos use to communicate with each other.

This is the result of a video-based study in which volunteers translated monkey movements. It was carried out by researchers at Andrews University.

He suggests that our last common ancestor we shared with chimpanzees also used similar gestures, and that they are a “starting point” for our language.

The findings were published in the scientific journal PLOS Biology.

Andrews University lead researcher Dr. Kirsty Graham explained: “We know that about 95% of the gestures that all great apes—chimpanzees and bonobos—used to communicate overlap.

“So we already had a suspicion that this was a common gesture ability that might have been present in our last common ancestor.”

This work was part of an ongoing scientific mission to understand the origin story of this language by carefully examining the communication in our closest ape cousins.

chimpanzee communication signals

chimpanzee communication signals

This research team has spent many years observing wild chimpanzees. Previously, they discovered that great apes use a “dictionary” of more than 80 gestures, each conveying a message to another member of their group.

Messages such as “groom me” are delivered with a long scratching motion; mouth stroking means “give me that food,” and tearing strips from a leaf with teeth is a chimp courting gesture.

translate monkeys

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

Volunteers watched videos of chimpanzees and bonobos gesturing and then choosing from a multiple-choice translation list.

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

University of St Andrews Dr. “We were really surprised by the results,” said Catherine Hobaiter. “It turns out that we can all do this almost instinctively, which is both fascinating in terms of the evolution of communication and really quite frustrating as a scientist with years of training in how to do that,” he joked.

Gestures that humans can understand from birth may form part of what Dr Graham describes as “an evolutionarily ancient, shared dictionary of gestures in all great ape species, including ourselves.”

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