Semantics of primate gestures: intentional meanings of orangutan gestures

Erica Amanda Cartmill, Richard William Byrne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

89 Citations (Scopus)


Great ape gesture has become a research topic of intense interest, because its intentionality and flexibility suggest strong parallels to human communication. Yet the fundamental question of whether an animal species' gestures carry specific meanings has hardly been addressed. We set out a systematic approach to studying intentional meaning in the gestural communication of non-humans and apply it to a sample of orangutan gestures. We propose that analysis of meaning should be limited to gestures for which (1) there is strong evidence for intentional production and (2) the recipient's final reaction matches the presumed goal of the signaller, as determined independently. This produces a set of "successful" instances of gesture use, which we describe as having goal-outcome matches. In this study, 28 orangutans in three European zoos were observed for 9 months. We distinguished 64 gestures on structural grounds, 40 of which had frequent goal-outcome matches and could therefore be analysed for meaning. These 40 gestures were used predictably to achieve one of 6 social goals: to initiate an affiliative interaction (contact, grooming, or play), request objects, share objects, instigate co-locomotion, cause the partner to move back, or stop an action. Twenty-nine of these gestures were used consistently with a single meaning. We tested our analysis of gesture meaning by examining what gesturers did when the response to their gesture did not match the gesture's meaning. Subsequent actions of the gesturer were consistent with our assignments of meaning to gestures. We suggest that, despite their contextual flexibility, orangutan gestures are made with the expectation of specific behavioural responses and thus have intentional meanings as well as functional consequences.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)793-804
Number of pages12
JournalAnimal Cognition
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2010


  • Great ape
  • Method
  • Meaning
  • Intention
  • Primate communication


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