In Brief

Chimpanzee language revealed through translated gestures

Scientists discover the ‘closest thing to human language’ displayed in nature

Primatologists have translated gestures used by chimpanzees in the wild to communicate in the first detailed study of its kind.

Focusing on non-verbal gestures, researchers spent 18 months in Kenya analysing thousands of cases and were able to identify 15 exact meanings for 36 different gestures.

Examples of such signals include the stomping of both feet, which is used to initiate play, and a request for contact, which is conveyed by a chimpanzee reaching out its arms. Leaning on one foot and thrusting it out means ‘climb on’.

The chimpanzees used these physical gestures to make requests and participate in important social negotiations.

According to research leader Dr Catherine Hobaiter, this is the only form of intentional, goal-oriented communication recorded in animals.

Primatologist and co-author of the chimpanzee study Richard Byrne told Wired, “What we’ve shown is a very rich system of many different meanings,”

“We have the closest thing to human language that you can see in nature”, he said.

“Chimps are more closely related to us than they are to the rest of the great apes, so it makes sense that we are incredibly similar to them in many ways", Dr Hobaiter told the BBC.

One of the limitations of the study is that it could only analyse gestures which prompted an action, as researchers were unable to interpret gestures which may convey more subtle messages.

Some gestures also seemed to have many different meanings. Grabbing can, for example, be used to convey "stop that," "climb on me," and "move away."

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