Humankind's closest relative — the chimpanzee — just got a little bit easier to understand.
A new study by a team of Scottish scientists revealed how chimpanzees communicate using hand and body movements. While it has long been known that certain chimpanzee gestures had corresponding meanings and intentions behind them, no one had been able to demystify the communication of chimps until now.
Conducted by primatologists at the University of St. Andrews, the research team — led by Catherine Hobaiter and Richard Byrne, a lecturer and professor at the School of Psychology and Neuroscience, respectively — observed 80 chimpanzees in Uganda's Budongo Forest for 18 months to create a "dictionary" of chimpanzee gestures.
“It has been known for over 30 years that chimpanzees communicate in this way, but oddly enough, nobody has attempted to answer the obvious question, what are these apes actually trying to ‘say?'" Hobaiter said in a statement.
The team recorded the chimps, and looked primarily for non-playful gestures due to the possibility that, like humans, certain gestures could mean something else in jest. For example, a tap on the shoulder when two chimps are playing could be interpreted differently than when they tap each other in a non-playful manner — where the intent might be clearer.
Overall, the scientists recorded more than 4,500 instances of gesturing. Of those, they were able to identify 15 meanings behind 36 gestures.
Some of those discovered meanings include the following:
- When a chimpanzee taps another chimp, it means "Stop that"
- When a chimpanzee slaps an object or flings its hand, it means "Move away" or "Go away"
- When a chimpanzee raises its arm, it means "I want that"
With an established dictionary-like repertoire of gestures, the research team will start assessing the nuances of specific gestures to further extrapolate their current findings.
“Now that the basic chimpanzee gesture ‘dictionary’ is known, we can start to tackle other interesting questions," Hobaiter said. "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?”
The study and results were published on Thursday in the journal Current Biology.
Tags: CHIMPANZEES, research, SCOTLAND, UGANDA, UNIVERSITIES, US & World, WORLD