Gesture as the most flexible modality of primate communication

Frans B. M. de Waal and Amy S. Pollick

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 Gesture as the most flexible modality of primate communication

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This article highlights gesture as the most flexible modality of primate communication. An understanding of the complex issue of language evolution must be grounded in a range of disciplines, including linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, archaeology, and primatology. The evolution of language is typically debated within a hypothetical framework, but we can look to extant non-human primate communication to help shape the discussion. One of the most interesting and least studied forms of social communication in apes is gesture. All four species of great ape that include bonobo, chimpanzee, orangutan, use their hands to communicate, but gestures are difficult to study in the wild. A notable exception is one of the first reports on gestures in wild chimpanzees studied by Goodall. The most detailed studies of gesture historically concerned human-reared individuals trained to use American Sign Language. This article reviews gestures studied in two species of great ape, chimpanzees and bonobos. The gestural origin of language theory offers a tantalizing scenario for what human language may have looked like in its early stages, and this article reviews the data on ape gestures that support this theory, or rather, a suggested modified version.

Keywords: gesture; primate communication; evolution of language; social communication; American sign language

Article.  2790 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Language Evolution

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