In the first systematic study of a non-human primate language, scientists from St. Andrew's University have deciphered the meaning of 66 wild chimpanzee sign language gestures. Ranging from flirting requests to grooming instructions, the gestures may reveal how language evolves.
Top image: Catherine Hobaiter
The study, which now appears in Current Biology, shows that wild chimpanzees use at least 66 gestures, such as arm raises, ground slaps, and foot stomps, to intentionally communicate 19 meanings. This dictionary, or "lexicon," was compiled by researchers Catherine Hobaiter and and Richard Byrne after observing over 80 wild chimps in the rainforests of Uganda, and then examining over 4,500 individual cases to decipher true (i.e. non-playful) meanings for the various gestures; the researchers isolated non-playful uses because in play, gestures are not always used with their 'real' meaning.
A Scientific First
Hobaiter claims that only humans and chimps have a system of communication in which deliberate messages are sent from one individual to another. But that's debateable. Dolphins, through their complex use of clicks, burst-pulses, and whistles, may be utilizing a primitive form of language. And according to Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, bonobos have innate language skills, which suggests they may have their own yet-to-be deciphered lexicon of their own.