Socio-Cognitive Specializations in Nonhuman Primates: Evidence from Gestural Communication

Erica A. Cartmill and Dario Maestripieri

in The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Evolutionary Psychology

Published in print February 2012 | ISBN: 9780199738182
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Library of Psychology

Socio-Cognitive Specializations in Nonhuman Primates: Evidence from Gestural Communication


This chapter reviews primate cognitive abilities in physical, social, and communicative realms and asks (1) whether primates exhibit abilities that differ from those of other animals, and (2) what selective pressures primates face that may have led to the emergence of specific cognitive abilities. The authors focus on communication as the most likely realm for primate cognitive specialization and on the gestural communication of great apes as the modality in which primates exhibit the most advanced cognitive abilities. Findings from studies of natural communication systems of both wild and captive primates as well as studies involving communication with human experimenters are presented and discussed. Apes demonstrate flexibility, learning, and sensitivity to social cues in their gestural communication, but further studies are needed to determine how gestures are acquired and how they are perceived. Studies of comparative development of gestural communication and social cognition have the greatest potential to reveal the cognitive abilities used during gesturing, and they will help to determine whether those abilities are truly specializations for communication.

Keywords: Great ape; communication; gesture; social cognition; development

Article.  21672 words. 

Subjects: Psychology ; Social Psychology

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