Scientists Learn the Language of the Chimpanzees

We’ve all heard stories about the incredible ability of animals to communicate among themselves and with humans, including the deaf dog mentioned in this recent Inquisitr article, but one of the most fascinating types of animal sign language occurs between chimpanzees.

Recently, a team of scientists, including Scotland’s University of St. Andrews Richard Byrne and co-author Catherine Hobaiter, spent 18 months of intensive study with primates who had appeared to have developed their own set of gestures resembling the signs humans use to communicate with each other. Their findings, which were published in the July 3 copy of Current Biology, were very intriguing.

Says Byrne, “What we’ve shown is a very rich system of many different meanings. We have the closest thing to humanb language that you can see in nature.”

The primates, which included chimpanzees and bonobos, were studied separately, each exhibited a lot of physical gestures rather than much vocalization. Bonobo gestures conveyed a level of complex information never observed previously among non-humans.

The scientists were able to identify no less than 36 chimpanzee gestures. Over the course of 18 months, they were able to observe chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest Reserve in western Kenya, documenting thousands of gestures between the animals, and the responses made to them.


The capacity for language among apes is not surprising, as clear back in 1999 scientists were able to teach them to speak English. Panbanisha, a chimp, was taught a vocabulary of about 3,000 words, and used a computer that produced the words using a synthetic voice. Here is a video of Panbanisha below.

Researchers have been studying the ability of non-human primates to communicate for a very long time. Western studies began as medical experimentation to compare the primates with their human counterparts, and perhaps find a link between them. Somewhere during this, they began to teach them “civilized” behaviors as well. Clear back in the 1950s, Japanese researchers were far more interested in the social behaviors of apes.

Overall, it is understood by scientists that humans are also members of the primate family, so it stands to reason that our cousins might exhibit communications abilities, and studying their behaviors could offer insight into how language may have developed among homo-sapiens. Figuring out how the chimpanzees communicate may be one step closer to figuring out what led to our own ability to do so.