Toddlers And Baby Chimps Have Even More In Common Than We Thought


Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

clockSep 12 2018, 17:24 UTC

This is one gesture that humans tend to do more. Olga Sapegina/Shutterstock

It is a well-known fact that we share plenty of genetic materials with the chimpanzees and gorillas, which are some of our closest cousins in the animal kingdom. New research suggests that we might also share a series of innate gestures when we're young to indicate what we want.

The study, published in Animal Cognition, looked specifically at the gestures used by children aged 1 to 2 years. The researchers identified 52 gestures used by toddlers to communicate, for example, pointing, stomping feet, shaking their head, or throwing things, over 95 percent of which are also used by young gorillas and chimpanzees. The team observed both groups also combining gestures to ask for different things.


The researchers recorded gestures in the same approach. The chimpanzees were observed in their natural habitat, the Budongo Forest in Uganda. The children were observed in their homes or in nurseries. The age range was important since this is when children are on the cusp of learning language but don't yet have the words to communicate what they mean. And while the importance of language is undeniable, it is interesting that we still have access to this inherited tome of gestures.

“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,” first author Dr Verena Kersken, from the University of Göttingen, said in a statement.

Who needs words? Young chimps are very good at making it clear exactly what they want. Rahmo/Shutterstock 

Researchers have recently completed a dictionary of gestures used by great apes, the family to which both humans and chimps belong to. The Great Ape Dictionary contains over 80 of these gestures, ranging from requests and beckoning to warnings about specific predators, with examples from chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans.

“Wild chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans 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,” co-author Dr Catherine Hobaiter, from the University of St Andrews, added.


“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.”

The researchers didn’t just find similarities. They also found differences. Compared to the chimps, young children tend to point a lot more. And waving to say hello or goodbye seems to be something that is done exclusively by humans.