Do chimps know what gestures to make to us?

Published date: 20 January 2014 |
Published by: David Powell 
Read more articles by David Powell  Email reporter


PRIMATES may use intentional gestures to interact with humans, a study involving academics from the city has suggested.

Academics from the University of Chester teamed up with the University of Stirling in Scotland, and Georgia State University in the USA to examine how two language-trained chimpanzees communicated with humans while looking for food.

The team devised a task demanding simultaneous co-ordination between the chimpanzees and a human to find a piece of food hidden in a large outdoor area.

The human experimenter did not know where the food was hidden, and the chimpanzees flexibly used gestures such as pointing to guide the experimenter to the food.

Dr Anna Roberts, of the University of Chester, said: “The use of gestures to co-ordinate joint activities such as finding food may have been an important building block in the evolution of language.

“This study shows that chimpanzees are also capable of using intentional gestures in a flexible way to guide the naive experimenter to the food item.”

Following on from the findings of the research, a paper called Chimpanzees Modify Intentional Gestures to Co-ordinate a Search for Hidden Food, has been published in the scientific journal, Nature Communications.

Dr Sam Roberts, also from the University of Chester, added: “This task is similar to the children’s party game ‘hot or cold’, in that the chimpanzee had to use gestures to signal to the human experimenter whether they were getting closer (warmer) or further away (colder) from the food item.

“One chimpanzee, named Panzee, was particularly skilful in this task, as she pointed upwards if the experimenter pointed too close to Panzee, relative to the food’s location, and downwards if the experimenter pointed too far away from the food.

“This flexible use of pointing, taking into account both the location of the food and the actions of the experimenter, has not been observed in chimpanzees before.”

The project was supported by Leakey Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the British Academy, the Carnegie trust for the Universities of Scotland and the University of Stirling.

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