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Chimpanzees Use Gestures to Communicate

By Russell Tenofsky

Photo of a chimpanzee using gestures and a diagram to communicate.A team of scientists recently discovered that chimpanzees are capable of using gestures to successfully relay information to humans about the location of hidden objects.

An experiment conducted at Georgia State University’s Language Research Center* showed that the chimpanzees Panzee and Sherman, who were both raised by humans, possess the ability to use a variety of complex gestures to tell a completely naive human the location of hidden food.

The experiment was a rather simple one. The scientists hid food in a large outdoor enclosure. The chimpanzees knew the location of the hidden food and the human participant did not. Panzee, a 19-year-old female, and Sherman, a 31 year old male, who researchers have used in other cognition and language experiments, were to show the human the location of the hidden food by communicating in whatever manner they chose. Scientists at Georgia State specifically designed the experiments so the chimpanzees‚Äô themselves were ‚Äúin control‚ÄĚ of the experiments.

‚ÄúThe design of the experiment with the chimpanzee-as-director created new ways to study the primate,‚ÄĚ said Dr. Charles Menzel. ‚ÄúIt allows the chimpanzees to communicate information in the manner of their choosing, but also requires them to initiate and to persist in communication.‚ÄĚ

The results of the experiment revealed a great deal about chimpanzees’ ability to process and communicate information.

Panzee and Sherman had to persistently continue, alter and vary their gestures in order to get their point across.

‚ÄúBecause of the openness of this paradigm, the findings illustrate the high level of intentionality chimpanzees are capable of, including their use of directional gestures,‚ÄĚ Dr. Menzel said. ‚ÄúThis study adds to our understanding of how well chimpanzees can remember and communicate about their environment.”

Not only did they have to remember the location of the food, but, just as with human communication, Panzee and Sherman had to persistently continue, alter and vary their gestures in order to get their point across. The scientists say this is the first time an experiment has proven that chimpanzees can combine the two cognitive tools.

‚ÄúPrevious findings in both wild and captive chimpanzees have indicated flexibility in their gestural production, but the more complex coordination task used here demonstrates the considerable cognitive abilities that underpin chimpanzee communication,‚ÄĚ co-author Dr. Sarah-Jane Vick of the University of Stirling said.

And, according to lead author Dr. Anna Roberts from the University of Chester, ‚ÄúThe use of gestures to coordinate joint activities such as finding food may have been an important building block in the evolution of language.‚ÄĚ

Note: The Nonhuman Rights Project does not endorse experimentation on captive animals. However, we do quote the results of these experiments when they help make the case that the animals have a level of sentience, self-awareness, and, in some cases, a theory of mind that demonstrates that we should not keep them in captivity in the first place.

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