Speaking Bonobo

Bonobos have an impressive vocabulary, especially when it comes to snacks

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh (with Kanzi in 2003) says her bonobos can communicate with her and each other using more than 348 symbols. (Great Ape Trust of Iowa)
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But many linguists argue that these bonobos are simply very skilled at getting what they want, and that their abilities do not constitute language."I do not believe that there has ever been an example anywhere of a nonhuman expressing an opinion, or asking a question. Not ever,"says Geoffrey Pullum, a linguist at the University of California at Santa Cruz."It would be wonderful if animals could say things about the world, as opposed to just signaling a direct emotional state or need. But they just don’t.”

Whatever the dimension of Kanzi’s abilities, he and I did manage to communicate. I’d told Savage-Rumbaugh about some of my adventures, and she invited me to perform a Maori war dance. I beat my chest, slapped my thighs and hollered. The bonobos sat quiet and motionless for a few seconds, then all but Kanzi snapped into a frenzy, the noise deafening as they screamed, bared their teeth and pounded on the walls and floor of their enclosure. Still calm, Kanzi waved an arm at Savage-Rumbaugh, as if asking her to come closer, then let loose with a stream of squeaks and squeals."Kanzi says he knows you're not threatening them," Savage-Rumbaugh said to me," and he'd like you to do it again just for him, in a room out back, so the others won't get upset.”

I’m skeptical, but I follow the researcher through the complex, out of Kanzi's sight. I find him, all alone, standing behind protective bars. Seeing me, he slapped his chest and thighs, mimicking my war dance, as if inviting me to perform an encore. I obliged, of course, and Kanzi joined in with gusto.


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