Comprehension of iconic gestures by chimpanzees and human children

M. Bohn, Josep Call, M. Tomasello

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


Iconic gestures-communicative acts using hand or body movements that resemble their referent-figure prominently in theories of language evolution and development. This study contrasted the abilities of chimpanzees (N=11) and 4-year-old human children (N=24) to comprehend novel iconic gestures. Participants learned to retrieve rewards from apparatuses in two distinct locations, each requiring a different action. In the test, a human adult informed the participant where to go by miming the action needed to obtain the reward. Children used the iconic gestures (more than arbitrary gestures) to locate the reward, whereas chimpanzees did not. Some children also used arbitrary gestures in the same way, but only after they had previously shown comprehension for iconic gestures. Over time, chimpanzees learned to associate iconic gestures with the appropriate location faster than arbitrary gestures, suggesting at least some recognition of the iconicity involved. These results demonstrate the importance of iconicity in referential communication.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-17
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Early online date6 Oct 2015
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2016


  • Iconic gestures
  • Referential communication
  • Language development
  • Social cognition
  • Chimpanzees
  • Evolution


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