Chimpanzees use many different gestures to communicate, such as “reaching out” which they usually use to ask for food (Photo: Katarzyna Hobaiter)
According to a study by the University of St Andrews, PEOPLE can recognize and understand gestures made by chimpanzees and bonobos.
Although we no longer use them ourselves, humans correctly identified more than half of the gestures made by primates in an online study conducted by Dr. Kirsty Graham and Dr. Catherine Hobaiter of the School of Psychology and Neuroscience on a group of 5,500 participants.
Dr Graham said: “All great apes use gestures, but humans are so gestural – using gestures when speaking and signing, learning new gestures, pantomime, etc.
Viewers watched short videos of the 10 most common gestures used by chimpanzees and bonobos, and were then asked to choose the meaning of the gesture from four possible answers.
The results showed that the participants correctly interpreted the meaning of the gestures more than 50% of the time.
Providing additional contextual information had little impact on success, suggesting that humans can correctly identify the meaning of a monkey’s gestures from the gestures alone.
Although data is no longer being collected, an online version of the experiment’s quiz is still available.
It is possible that we have retained an understanding of this ancestral system of communication for our closest living relatives.
Dr Hobaiter said: “On the one hand, it’s really incredible that we are able to do this – Kirsty and I have spent years living in the woods with chimpanzees and bonobos and working hard to study their communication.
“But it turns out that maybe we didn’t need it! We can decipher these gestures almost instinctively.
“It’s a handy reminder that we’re great apes too! And that, even though modern humans have a language, we retained some understanding of our common great ape communication system.”
The research adds to decades of work during which scientists have carefully recorded and studied the meaning of nearly 100 different monkey gestures.
Video playback experiments have been used to test language comprehension in non-human primates, but this study flipped the paradigm to assess humans’ ability to understand primate gestures for the first time.
The PLOS Biology article is available at https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.3001939