Chimpanzee gestures deciphered in 'world first' after scientists decode foot stomps and hand flings

Researchers at St Andrews University studied 80 wild apes in Ugandan rainforest

Natasha Culzac
Friday 04 July 2014 18:30 BST

Scientists have deciphered as many as 66 chimpanzee gestures, which they say are used intentionally by the apes and which provide a potential link with the early development of the human language.

From simple requests to complex social negotiation, the chimps were found to use a number of hand and body gestures to get their intentions across.

Eighty wild chimpanzees in the Budongo rainforest, Uganda, were analysed in an attempt to interpret what the ground slaps, foot stomps and arm raises really mean.

Researchers from St Andrew’s University say that they have shown in unprecedented detail what our closest living relatives are trying to convey, after looking at over 4,500 gestures using secret recordings.

“Although it has been known for over 30 years that apes use gestures to communicate, until now no one has worked out what they are actually trying to say,” the team, led by primatologists Dr Catherine Hobaiter and Professor Richard Byrne, said.

They have now created a sort of dictionary or lexicon of 19 different meanings, publishing the results in the journal Current Biology this week after concentrating on the apes’ non-playful uses of their gestures.

Professor Byrne said: “There is abundant evidence that chimpanzees and other apes gesture with purpose.

"Apes target their gestures to particular individuals, choosing appropriate gestures according to whether the other is looking or not; they stop gesturing when they get the result they want; and otherwise they keep going, trying out alternative gestures or other tactics altogether.

A tap by a chimpanzee was found to mean “stop that”, a hand fling or slapping an object means “move away,” and an arm raise means “I want that” or “give me that.”

Dr Hobaiter said: “Just as with human words, some gestures have several senses, but importantly the meanings of chimpanzee gestures are the same irrespective of who uses them.

“Now that the basic chimpanzee gesture ‘dictionary’ is known, we can start to tackle other interesting questions. Do some gestures have very general meanings, where their intended sense is understood from the context? Or do subtle variations in how a gesture is made determine which sense was meant?”

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