Many humans use elaborate hand gestures in order to supplement their verbal communications. New research has found that chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, are capable of gesturing to one another to indicate the presence of food. The research was led by Anna Ilona Roberts of the University of Chester and was published in the journal Nature Communications.
Two chimpanzees, a female named Panzee and a male named Sherman, are trained in language. They were tested on their ability to communicate the location of food while working with a human researcher. Food was hidden from the human in a large, outdoor space while the chimps saw where it was placed. The chimps helped guide the researcher toward the food by pointing to its location.
Because the testing area was so large, the chimps had to direct the human over 10 meters away to the food. This gave them a great deal of freedom in how they were able to communicate the hidden food’s location. The chimps pointed to where the food was, and the closer the human got to the secret location, they began to gesture more frequently. Panzee also made more elaborate gestures in response to the human pointing toward the correct location of hidden food.
This experiment was quite unique in the size of the testing area and the freedom the chimps were given in deciding how to communicate to the human. The researchers believe that the success of this study has important implications in the evolution of language. Gesturing, like what was demonstrated by the chimpanzees, combines the need to communicate information with motor coordination, which likely played a role in forming early language.