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Want to say “Hello,” but don’t know the local language? Try waving your hand. Such gestures, common among humans, are also surprisingly similar among chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest great ape relatives. Now, a new study has identified numerous gestures that mean the same thing to both species. That suggests these signals have biological underpinnings and could be inherited from our last common ancestor.
Gestures, signals often used to get someone’s attention or ask for or stop something, are not technically languages. They don’t have specific linguistic and grammatical rules or accepted vocabularies. But gestures still have meaning: Among chimpanzees, for example, scientists have documented that many of their movements—from mouth stroking to request food or arm raising to request grooming—are used to elicit specific responses from other chimpanzees. Researchers have now found something similar in bonobos, great apes closely related to chimpanzees but with longer legs, pink lips, and long hair that’s parted in the middle on their heads.
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Scientists started by shooting and analyzing videos of wild bonobos in Uganda. When a bonobo made a common gesture that brought a consistent, satisfying response from others, it was added to the list. For example, when one bonobo looked at another while loudly scratching one arm, the second often responded by grooming the first. Because the first bonobo was almost always satisfied by this response, the researchers concluded that a “big, loud scratch” is a request for grooming. The scientists next compared the bonobo gestures to those of chimpanzees, and found that their repertoires overlapped by about 90%, significantly more than “would be expected by chance,” says lead author Kirsty Graham, a comparative psychologist at the University of York in the United Kingdom.
This gesture is used by both species, but it has different meanings for each. Chimpanzees raise an arm to say...
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