Scientists have now decoded the way chimpanzees communicate with each other through non-verbal language. In order to talk to one another, a recent study has found that the chimpanzee uses 66 gestures including stomping, raising their arms, and slapping the ground. Scientists at the University of St Andrews have determined that tapping another chimp means “stop,” flinging their hand means “move,” and raising their arm signals for the other to “give.”
It has been known for approximately 30 years that apes communicate by using their hands and body movement. However, the study, which spent 18 months conducting research by recording and observing 80 wild chimpanzees make around 4,500 gestures in the Budongo rainforest of Uganda, is the first to actually translate the gestures. Besides humans, researchers found that chimpanzees are the only other animals that have a system of intentional communication in which one animal sends a message to another.
The scientists were able to decode 19 different meanings of the 66 gestures discovered in the language of chimpanzees. “Flirt with me” was communicated by nibbling on a leaf, while “climb on my back” was signaled by showing the bottom of their foot to each other. The apes were found targeting their gestures to specific individuals and choosing appropriate communication in accordance to whether the other chimpanzee was looking at them or not. They will cease gesturing when they arrive at the result of what they wanted, otherwise they will keep trying to communicate by alternating their gestures or changing tactics altogether.
Just as human language can have several definitions for one word, some chimpanzee gestures have multiple meanings. A grab, for example, can signal for the other chimp to either stop, move, or climb on me. Similarly, chimps might also use more than one gesture to signal the same thing, particularly in social negotiations, where the conclusion could result in some give and take on both ends. The scientists mainly observed the chimps when they were not playing, because when they were in a playful mood, the gestures would change in meaning and become irregular.
According to researchers, the next step is to decide whether the chimps use any type of variations while they gesture to one another, which would show possible signs of subtle changes in meaning. The vagueness of their gestures could mean that either the chimps do not have a lot to communicate, or researchers are still missing a lot of information that is contained within their actions and signals.
Chimpanzee communication is not as flexible as human language, and does not contain any type of sentence structure, but rather, uses gestures that stand on their own. Nevertheless, it is an expansive system of communication. It also supports the idea that human language did not evolve without a starting point but is actually rooted in cognitive and gestural abilities from the primate family.
Because there are limitations to the research, and scientists are only able to identify gestures that provoke an action, it is still difficult to determine whether chimp communication goes beyond simple gestures, like discussing the weather or something else more complex. However, researchers have decoded the basics of language for chimpanzees, which is the first step in discovering more about the communication of primates.
By Laura “Addi” Simmons