Humans Can Understand Gestures Made By Great Apes, Study Finds

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Topline

Humans can understand gestures made by other great apes despite not using them ourselves—a comprehension that researchers say is either directly inherited or part of a more general cognition—a study out Tuesday found.

Key Facts

Using an online game, researchers tested people’s understanding of the 10 most common gestures used by bonobos and chimpanzees.

The more than 5,550 participants in the study viewed 20 short videos of ape gestures and then answered multiple choice questions about the meaning of the respective gesture, according to the study.

More than half of the time participants correctly interpreted the meaning of the animal gestures, according to the study published in the journal of PLOS Biology.

Gestures mentioned in the study included, a big loud scratch, a gesture used to initiate grooming and an object shake, a gesture used to initiate sex.

The study reversed a common video playback method traditionally used to assess language comprehension in non-human primates, the authors said.

Finding that people can understand these gestures suggests, “they may form part of an evolutionarily ancient, shared gesture vocabulary across all great ape species including us,” said Kirsty Graham, one of the study’s authors.

People interested in the study can take the quiz online themselves.

What We Don’t Know

Where this understanding of gestures originates from. Researchers say it could originate from the similar social goals, physical resemblance and general intelligence humans and great apes share. It could also be something that was inherited.

Key Background

This is not the first time researchers have suggested an overlap in the understanding of gestures between great apes and humans. A 2019 study, published in the journal of Animal Cognition, found that one to two-year-old human infants used more than 50 ape gestures in the time before they learned to speak. The study suggested that these gestures could signal the presence of a universal repertoire that is innate in all apes.

Further Reading

New Research Supports Idea That You’re Smarter Than A Monkey Because Your Ancestors Learned to Cook (Forbes)

Bonobos Are Peaceful, Female-Dominated And Closely Related To Humans – Why Do We Ignore The Link (Forbes)

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