Humans can understand other apes’ common methods of sign language, scientists have just discovered – meaning we might all have a Dr Jane Goodall within us after all.
Researchers at St Andrews University have found that people can, quite easily, comprehend the meaning of signals apes like wild chimps and bonobos use to communicate with each other.
The scientists’ video-based study asked volunteers to interpret the gestures from clips of various apes, and choose from a list of potential translations.
Volunteers correctly interpreted the apes more than 50% of the time – leading scientists concluding this form of communication is likely shared by other species of great apes too.
Video playback has been used before to test language comprehension in non-human primates before, so this time, it was humans who were put to the test.
Lead researcher Dr Kirsty Graham told the BBC: “We know that all great apes – chimps and bonobos – have an overlap of about 95% of the gestures they use to communicate.
“So we already had a suspicion that this was a shared gesturing ability that might have been present in our last shared ancestor.
“But we’re quite confidence now that our ancestors would have started off gesturing and that this was co-opted into language.”
She suggested this could be an “evolutionary ancient, shared gesture vocabulary” we share with our animal relatives.
The clips showed that bonobos gesture to their mouths to say “give me that food”, chimpanzees move their hands across their chests to indicate they want to be groomed, while other apes show they’re trying to flirt by shaking nearby trees vigorously.
It was a part of a scientific study to try and understand where human language came from by looking at how our closest animal relatives communicate with each other.
The same team of researchers has spent years looking at these great apes, and found a “lexicon” of more than 80 gestures used to communicate.
Here’s a clip from 2020 showing how scientists interpreted various chimp gestures.
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Dr Catherine Hobatier also told the BBC that the results were “surprising”, adding: “It turns out we can all do it almost instinctively, which is both fascinating from an evolution of communication perspective and really quite annoying as a scientist who spent years training how to do it.”