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Bonobos and chimpanzees would understand each other – they share the meaning of some gestures

Posted March 1, 2018

Did you notice that in movies animals can talk between themselves, regardless if they are of different species? If humans cannot communicate with dogs, cats or dolphins, why a crow would be able to talk with the cow? Anyway, scientists from Universities of York, St Andrews, and Kyoto have noticed that bonobo and chimpanzee gestures actually share multiple meanings.

Bonobos and chimpanzees are closely related – they shared gestures, which means they are inherited. Image credit: William H. Calvin via Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 4.0)

These two great ape species are actually closely related – they separated during the course of evolution sometime one to two million years ago. Now they are using gestures to communicate with other individuals from their group, for example, in order to initiate and change positions during grooming.  Scientists found out about the meaning of some of the gestures by observing this communication and how an animal responds to certain gestures. It is quite a language to learn. Bonobo and chimpanzee gestures overlap greatly, which should mean that they are actually inherited.

This would make sense, but that would also mean that these gestures are millions of years old. Scientists had a pretty accurate system of assessing what each gesture means. For example, they saw one bonobo extending its arm in front of another individual. The second bonobo would then climb on its back. Bonobo would stop gesturing, which means its request has been completed and the gesture meant “climb on my back”. This simple method allowed scientists to understand the meaning of 33 bonobo gestures and compare them to already known chimpanzee gestures.

It is a very interesting language that they have. Scientists think that it is very likely that these gestures were shared with the common ancestor. Dr Kirsty Graham, one of the authors of the study, said: “In future, we hope to learn more about how gestures develop through the apes’ lifetimes. We are also starting to examine whether humans share any of these great ape gestures and understand the gesture meanings”.

This is fascinating. By understanding these gestures we can take a completely different look into the world of bonobos and chimpanzees. Furthermore, we can communicate with them ourselves, even if animals are sometimes ignoring our attempts to mirror their gestures.


Source: University of York

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