Humans able to understand apes with ‘shared gesture vocabulary’

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Humans can understand the “signs” or gestures wild chimps and bonobos use to communicate with each other, according to Scientists. A video-based study at the University of St Andrews where volunteers translated ape gestures led them to this conclusion.

The study also suggested that the last common ancestor we shared with chimps used similar gestures.

As a result, these gestures were a “starting point” for our own human language.

Dr Kirsty Graham the lead researcher from St Andrews University said that early humans developed their ability to gesture from apes.

She said: “We know that all the great apes – chimps and bonobos – have an overlap of about 95 percent of the gestures they use to communicate.

“So we already had a suspicion that this was a shared gesturing ability that might have been present in our last shared ancestor.

“But we’re quite confident now that our ancestors would have started off gesturing, and that this was co-opted into language.”

The study was part of an ongoing scientific attempt to understand the origin of human language by studying communication in our closest ape cousins.

Researchers had spent many years observing wild chimpanzees.

They discovered that great apes use a whole “lexicon” of more than 80 gestures each giving a message to another member of their group.

For example messages like “groom me” are communicated through a long scratching motion.

A mouth stroke means “give me that food” while tearing strips from a leaf with teeth is a chimpanzee gesture of flirtation.

Scientists used video playback experiments, as traditionally this approach has been used to test language comprehension in non-human primates.

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However during the study they changed the approach to assess humans’ abilities to understand the gestures of apes.

After watching the videos of the apes volunteers were asked to choose from a multiple choice list of translations.

Participants performed better than expected, correctly interpreting the meaning of chimpanzee and bonobo gestures 50 percent of the time.

Dr Catherine Hobaiter from St Andrews University said that researchers were “surprised” by the results.

She said: “We were really surprised by the results.

“It turns out we can all do it almost instinctively, which is both fascinating from an evolution of communication perspective and really quite annoying as a scientist who spent years training how to do it.”

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