Young children use the same gestures as chimpanzees and gorillas

A parent and child great ape
Similarities in the gestures used by children and gorillas reveal an evolutionary history of communication. MARIANNE BROOKER reports

Wild great apes use over 80 different gestures, and the scientists have recently completed a ‘great ape dictionary’ to investigate what they mean.

Children aged one to two years old on the cusp of learning language use many of the gestures observed in great apes, according to new research from the University of St Andrews.

The study, published in Animal Cognition, showed that the children used 52 gestures to communicate, over 95 percent of which are shared with chimpanzees and gorillas.

Scientists from the University of St Andrews, University of Neuchatel, University of Göttingen and University of Hamburg studied young children and chimpanzees.

'Great ape dictionary'

The team used the same method of recording gestures for both species: chimpanzees were observed in their habitat, the Budongo Forest in Uganda, and young children were observed in their nursery and home environments.

Wild great apes use over 80 different gestures, and the scientists have recently completed a ‘great ape dictionary’ to investigate what they mean

Senior author Dr Catherine Hobaiter, from the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at St Andrews, said: “Wild chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orang-utans all use gestures to communicate their day-to-day requests, but until now there was always one ape missing from the picture – us.

“We used exactly the same approach to study young chimpanzees and children, which makes sense – children are just tiny apes.”

The scientists were surprised by just how many gestures the children had in common with our ape cousins.

Dr Hobaiter said: “We thought that we might find a few of these gestures – reaching out your palm to ask for something or sticking your hand up in the air – but we were amazed to see so many of the ‘ape’ gestures used by the children.”

'Gestural heritage'

The scientists found that like young apes, the young children used these gestures in a similar way: combining them together to ask for different things.

They also found some differences – young children use pointing gestures far more than young apes, and waving your hand (to say hello or goodbye) seems to be uniquely human.

First author Dr Verena Kersken, University of Göttingen, said: “Since chimpanzees and humans shared a common ancestor around 5-6 million years ago, we wanted to know whether our evolutionary history of communication is also reflected in human development.”

While humans developed language, it appears that we still have access to this shared ancient gestural heritage – and gestures continue to play an important role before language is fully developed.

This Author 

Marianne Brooker is a contributing editor for The Ecologist. This story is based on a press release from the University of St Andrews. 

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