How Well Can Humans Understand Chimps And Bonobos?


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

Chimps are one of our closest relatives on the evolutionary tree. But how well do we "get" them? Anna Kucherova/Shutterstock

Chimpanzees and bonobos split from each other on the evolutionary tree around 2 million years ago as a result of the Congo River forming. Although they are now separated by this great river, with Bonobos south of the river and chimps on the north, they still share the same meaning behind some of their communicative hand gestures.

We too are pretty close to these great apes. They are both the closest extant relatives to humans, with our lineages splitting roughly 8 million years ago. So, that begs the question, is it possible for humans to understand their form of communication? 


Scientists have launched an online experiment to understand whether humans can understand the meaning of ape gestures. Researchers from the University of St Andrews in Scotland developed the test to see whether humans have some kind of an innate ability to understand chimps and bonobos. Their previous research has studied how this form of communication links to the evolutionary origins of human language.

You can try the experiment out for yourself.  All you have to do is watch a chimpanzee or a bonobo perform a single gesture in real time and once again in slow motion. You then have to decide what you think that action meant from four options, then say how certain you believe it's correct.

“We have found that different species of ape use many of the same gestures – but at the moment there’s one ape missing from the picture – us,” Dr Catherine Hobaiter, a primatologist specializing in communication and cognition in wild apes, said in a statement. “We might not use our ape gestures to communicate every day anymore, but perhaps we still understand what some of them mean.”

Chimpanzees and bonobos have over 60 different gestures they use to communicate with each other, many of which are the same or similar for both species. That’s perhaps not too surprising considering how closely related these two great apes are. Now, it's time to see how humans fit into all this.


“Citizen science projects like ours are great at getting large, diverse groups of people to answer the big questions,” Dr Kirsty Graham added.

“You don’t have to feel guilty about using our experiment to procrastinate – it’s for science.”


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