Humans and wild apes share common language

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

That is the conclusion of a video-based study in which volunteers translated ape gestures.

It was carried out by researchers at St Andrews University.

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

The findings are published in the scientific journal PLOS Biology.

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

“Human infants use some of these same gestures, too,” she said.

“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 study was part of an ongoing scientific mission to understand this language origin story by carefully studying communication in our closest ape cousins.

drawings of apes using sign language. The first one shows one moving its hand back and forth across its chest. That means 'groom me' the second one shows an ape shaking a tree - that means 'let's mate' and the third shows one beckoning, but with the fingers pointed down. That means come here.

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

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

Translating apes

Scientists used video playback experiments, because the approach has traditionally been used to test language comprehension in non-human primates. In this study, they turned the approach on its head to assess humans’ abilities to understand the gestures of their closest living ape relatives.

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

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

“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.

The gestures people can innately understand may form part of what Dr Graham described as “an evolutionarily ancient, shared gesture vocabulary across all great ape species including us”.

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