Chimpanzees Can Communicate with Gestures to Teach Location, Study Finds

Jan 17, 2014 05:55 PM EST

When trying to accomplish a specific goal, chimpanzees know how to use hand gestures to effectively communicate what they want, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Georgia found that chimps being tested on their ability to show a human the location of a hidden piece of food in a large outdoor area were able to communicate with gestures to point out the location of the food, an observation new to science.

For the experiment Charles Menzel, a senior research scientist at Georgia's Language Research Center, used a pair of language-trained chimpanzees and a human subject, testing how the chimps communicated with the human to find food.

Menzel and his colleagues devised a task where the coordination of the human and the two chimps was necessary to find the hidden food. The human experimenter did not know the location of the food beforehand, and the chimpanzees used gestures such a pointing to guide the human to the hidden location.

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Menzel said this "chimpanzee-as-director" tactic is a novel way to study primate behavior.

"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 said. "The chimpanzees used gestures to recruit the assistance of an otherwise uninformed person and to direct the person to hidden objects 10 or more meters away. Because of the openness of this paradigm, the findings illustrate the high level of intentionality chimpanzees are capable of, including their use of directional gestures. This study adds to our understanding of how well chimpanzees can remember and communicate about their environment."

The ability of chimps to use pointing gestures to coordinate activity may have been an important building block in the evolution of language, said research collaborator Anna Roberts of the University of Chester

Sarah-Jane Vick of the University of Stirling, another of the study's collaborators, said the experiment highlights the brain power exhibited by the chimps.

"Previous findings in both wild and captive chimpanzees have indicated flexibility in their gestural production, but the more complex coordination task used here demonstrates the considerable cognitive abilities that underpin chimpanzee communication," she said.

The research is published in the journal Nature Communications.

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