A new research study has established that chimpanzees can use hand gestures to aid in communication for foraging food. The research was performed by scientists working at Georgia State University’s (GSU’s) Language Research Center, and followed the actions of two language-trained chimps; the findings were published in the journal Nature Communications, entitled Chimpanzees Modify Intentional Gestures to Coordinate a Search for Hidden Food.
The researchers claim their new study provides persuasive evidence that primates can employ hand gestures to plan their actions in achieving a particular ambition, including sourcing concealed food – something the researchers experimentally investigated using their chimpanzee subjects.
Although humans frequently employ elaborate hand gestures to accomplish goals that would be difficult to complete on an individual basis, the same level of interaction has not been extensively investigated in chimpanzees. “Communicative persistence” is related to intricate cognitive skills, including intentionality; the participating subjects both deliberately alter their communication in response to each other’s appreciation for their meaning.
The team developed a task that demanded interaction between humans and chimps for successful completion. A piece of food was placed in an outdoor area, hidden from the human experimenter’s view. Although the chimpanzee was aware of the food’s location, only the human experimenter was able to retrieve it. Therefore, to obtain sustenance, the chimpanzee was tasked with directing the experimenter – who was entirely unaware of the food’s location – to its whereabouts.
Ultimately, the study found the two chimps, named Panzee and Sherman, increased the rate of use of “non-indicative gestures,” as the experimenter began to approach the food source. Panzee’s gestures were also modified and elaborated upon when the experimenter started to communicate back; when the experimenter pointed to a particular location, Panzee would respond to offer further instruction. This strategy of mutual cooperation and communication was found to be far more successful. Sherman, meanwhile, did not elaborate gestures in the same vain as Panzee and foraging for food was more difficult.
A senior researcher at the Language Research Center at GSU, Dr. Charles Menzel, described how the experiment yielded a novel means of studying the chimps and their ability to use hand gestures in advanced ways:
“It allows the chimpanzees to communicate information in the manner of their choosing, but also requires them to initiate and to persist in communication.”
Menzel goes on to explain how the chimps, essentially, “recruited” the aid of the uninformed experimenter to guide them to the location of the hidden piece of food – the location of which was positioned at distances of 10 or more meters from the human being’s starting point. Menzel believes the study demonstrates that chimpanzees are capable of a “high level of intentionality.” The findings also provide insight into how effectively chimps can recall their environment, alongside their ability to use gestures to communicate an area of interest to other individuals.
Researchers from the University of Chester and University of Stirling worked on the experiment together. Dr. Anna Roberts of the University of Chester expounded upon the importance of their work. Roberts conjectures that exercising these gestures, in order to master objectives that required participation of two subjects, could have been a highly significant “… building block in the evolution of language.”
Meanwhile, adding to Roberts’ conclusions, Dr. Sarah-Jane Vick of the University of Stirling states that their research builds upon previous studies, exploring the ability of chimps to show gestural production. However, Vick suggests that the ability of chimps to coordinate a third-party reveals the advanced cognitive powers that are needed for chimpanzee communication.
By James Fenner