Gestures of Human and Ape Infants Are More Similar Than You Might Expect

Comparing the body language of baby chimps, bonobos and humans suggests that gesticulation came first in the evolution of speaking

Baby chimpanzee and mother
The way a baby chimpanzee gestures to her mother resembles how a human infant interacts with its mother. Photo by Flickr user Rennett Stowe

Thirteen years after the release of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin published another report on the evolution of mankind. In the 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, the naturalist argued that people from different cultures exhibit any given emotion through the same facial expression. This hypothesis didn’t quite pan out—last year, researchers poked a hole in the idea by showing that the expression of emotions such as anger, happiness and fear wasn’t universal (PDF). Nonetheless, certain basic things—such as the urge to cry out in pain, an increase in blood pressure when feeling anger, even shrugging when we don’t understand something—cross cultures.

A new study, published today in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, compares such involuntary responses, but with an added twist: Some observable behaviors aren’t only universal to the human species, but to our closest relatives too—chimpanzees and bonobos.

Using video analysis, a team of UCLA researchers found that human, chimpanzee and bonobo babies make similar gestures when interacting with caregivers. Members of all three species reach with their arms and hands for objects or people, and point with their fingers or heads. They also raise their arms up, a motion indicating that they want to be picked up, in the same manner. Such gestures, which seemed to be innate in all three species, precede and eventually lead to the development of language in humans, the researchers say.

To pick up on these behaviors, the team studied hree babies of differing species through videos taken over a number of months. The child stars of these videos included a chimpanzee named Panpanzee, a bonobo called Panbanisha and a human girl, identified as GN. The apes were raised together at the Georgia State University Language Research Center in Atlanta, where researchers study language and cognitive processes in chimps, monkeys and humans. There, Panpanzee and Panbanisha were taught to communicate with their human caregivers using gestures, noises and lexigrams, abstract symbols that represent words. The human child grew up in her family’s home, where her parents facilitated her learning.

Researchers filmed the child’s development for seven months, starting when she was 11 months old, while the apes were taped from 12 months of age to 26 months. In the early stages of the study, the observed gestures were of a communicative nature: all three infants engaged in the behavior with the intention of conveying how their emotions and needs. They made eye contact with their caregivers, added non-verbal vocalizations to their movements or exerted physical effort to elicit a response.

By the second half of the experiment, the production of communicative symbols—visual ones for the apes, vocal ones for the human—increased. As she grew older, the human child began using more spoken words, while the chimpanzee and bonobo learned and used more lexigrams. Eventually, the child began speaking to convey what she felt, rather than only gesturing. The apes, on the other hand, continued to rely on gestures. The study calls this divergence in behavior “the first indication of a distinctive human pathway to language.”

The researchers speculate that the matching behaviors can be traced to the last shared ancestor of humans, chimps and bobonos, who lived between four and seven million years ago. That ancestor probably exhibited the same early gestures, which all three species then inherited. When the species diverged, humans managed to build on this communicative capacity by eventually graduating to speech.

Hints of this can be seen in how the human child paired her gestures with non-speech vocalizations, the precursors to words, far more than the apes did. It’s this successful combination of gestures and words that may have led to the birth of human language.

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