Researchers say they have translated the meaning of gestures that wild chimpanzees use to communicate. They say wild chimps communicate 19 specific messages to one another with a “lexicon” of 66 gestures. The scientists discovered this by following and filming communities of chimps in Uganda, and examining more than 5,000 incidents of these meaningful exchanges. The research is published in the journal Current Biology.
Dr Catherine Hobaiter, who led the research, said that this was the only form of intentional communication to be recorded in the animal kingdom. Only humans and chimps, she said, had a system of communication where they deliberately sent a message to another individual.
“That’s what’s so amazing about chimp gestures,” she told BBC News. “They’re the only thing that looks like human language in that respect.” 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’.
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.” ·