Humans able to understand other apes better than thought, research suggests

Study from St Andrew’s University gauges ability of people to interpret bonobo and chimpanzee gestures

We may not be able to strike up a conversation, debate politics or chat about the meaning of life with other great apes, but our ability to understand one another might be greater than once thought.

Researchers have discovered adult humans can discern the meaning of gestures produced by bonobos and chimpanzees, despite not necessarily using such gestures themselves.

“It seems that this is an ability that’s retained in our species as well [as other apes],” said Dr Kirsty Graham, first author of the research from the University of St Andrews, in Scotland.

Writing in the journal PLoS Biology, Graham and her colleague, Dr Catherine Hobaiter, said that intentional communication, in which an individual conveys meaning to another, is a feature of human languages but is rarely seen in other species.

Given it is implausible that intentional communication cropped up in humans through a single recent genetic leap, it is probable a simpler form was used by our evolutionary ancestors. Indeed, modern ape species today are known to use gestures to communicate their goals. Now the researchers have revealed that adult humans show a surprising level of understanding of such gestures.

The results emerged when the pair analysed data from 5,656 participants who took part in an online game in which they were shown 20 videos of chimpanzees and bonobos making 10 of their most common gestures, such as “groom me”, “give me that food” and “let’s have sex”, alongside an illustration of the gesture.

While some of the gestures had one meaning, others had several – with the correct meaning dependent upon the context of the gesture.

Participants were randomly allocated either to watch the gestures with text on what the apes were up to before the gesture – such eating or resting – or without this information, and were asked to select the correct meaning from four possible answers.

The findings showed that participants did better than chance at correctly interpreting the meanings of chimpanzee and bonobo gestures, whether or not contextual information was given, with an average success rate of 57% if information was given and 52% if not. What was more, the results held whether or not the gesture had just one, or multiple, meanings.

“The gestures and vocalisations [of our ancestors] likely co-evolved into the modern human gesture and human language that we have today,” said Graham. “Studies like this, and [the research in infants], give us more confidence in saying that this is probably something that our last common ancestor [with other great apes] would have been able to do.”

While the team say it is unclear quite how such gestures are understood across great ape species, including humans, one possibility is that understanding is hardwired, while another is that it arises as a result of a similar body, social goals and capacity to figure out meaning – possibly helped by some gestures resembling the desired outcome.

“It [could be] more of an inherited capacity rather than an inherited vocabulary,” Graham said.


Nicola Davis Science correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Altruism towards other species may have helped humans thrive, study finds
How toddlers interact with dogs helps explain how humans came to domesticate animals, scientists say

Ian Sample Science editor

16, Jan, 2023 @6:00 AM

Article image
Project Nim reminds us of our responsibility to the great apes | Peter Singer
Peter Singer for the New York Review of Books blog: How the chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky was treated was wrong, and such invasive research should be consigned to history

Peter Singer for the New York Review of Books blog, part of the Guardian Comment Network

27, Aug, 2011 @12:00 PM

Article image
Humans are more than clever apes? Don't make me laugh

Most qualities we think of as particularly 'human' can be seen elsewhere in the animal kingdom, thanks to evolution, writes Alice Roberts

Alice Roberts

01, Feb, 2014 @6:04 PM

Article image
Secrets of animal camouflage research | @GrrlScientist
GrrlScientist: This interesting video, courtesy of the BBSRC and Project Nightjar, reveals the secrets of animal camouflage research.


29, Aug, 2014 @10:55 AM

Article image
Goffin’s cockatoos able to use toolset to complete tasks
Parrot can figure out how to use a tool, pick the most suitable one and even transport a set together

Nicola Davis Science correspondent

10, Feb, 2023 @4:00 PM

Peter Singer: Of great apes and men

Peter Singer: As Spain takes one great step forward for animal rights and liberty, activists elsewhere are persecuted

Peter Singer

17, Jul, 2008 @11:01 PM

Article image
Dog-tired: hounds keep best yawns for human pals not strangers

Tokyo University scientists dig for roots of evolved canine empathy in contagious yawning study with (one's) best friend

Ian Sample

07, Aug, 2013 @9:00 PM

Article image
Orange cave crocodiles may be 'mutating' into new species
In 2008 an archaeologist discovered crocodiles living in remote caves in Gabon. Now, genetics hint that these weird cave crocodilians may be in the process of evolving into a new species.

Jeremy Hance

29, Jan, 2018 @8:50 AM

Article image
'Evolution in real time': silent crickets still singing for a mate
Scientists are fascinated that Hawaiian crickets still perform their vigorous mating call, despite having evolved to lose their song to avoid a deadly new parasite

Patrick Barkham

14, Feb, 2018 @6:01 AM

Article image
Chimps go ape for cinema: is this the beginning of the end for mankind?
New research shows chimpanzees bond quicker after watching films together. Time for Hollywood moguls to fetch the popcorn and head for the zoo – for everyone’s sake

Stuart Heritage

17, Jul, 2019 @1:47 PM