The gestural repertoire of the wild chimpanzee

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Great ape gestural communication is known to be intentional, elaborate and flexible; yet there is controversy over the best interpretation of the system and how gestures are acquired, perhaps because most studies have been made in restricted, captive settings. Here, we report the first systematic analysis of gesture in a population of wild chimpanzees. Over 266 days of observation, we recorded 4,397 cases of intentional gesture use in the Sonso community, Budongo, Uganda. We describe 66 distinct gesture types: this estimate appears close to asymptote, and the Sonso repertoire includes most gestures described informally at other sites. Differences in repertoire were noted between individuals and age classes, but in both cases, the measured repertoire size was predicted by the time subjects were observed gesturing. No idiosyncratic usages were found, i.e. no gesture type was used only by one individual. No support was found for the idea that gestures are acquired by 'ontogenetic ritualization' from originally effective actions; moreover, in detailed analyses of two gestures, action elements composing the gestures did not closely match those of the presumed original actions. Rather, chimpanzee gestures are species-typical; indeed, many are 'family-typical', because gesture types recorded in gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzee overlap extensively, with 24 gestures recorded in all three genera. Nevertheless, chimpanzee gestures are used flexibly across a range of contexts and show clear adjustment to audience (e.g. silent gestures for attentive targets, contact gestures for inattentive ones). Such highly intentional use of a species-typical repertoire raises intriguing questions for the evolution of advanced communication.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)745-767
Number of pages23
JournalAnimal Cognition
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2011


  • Communication
  • Pan
  • Intentional gesture
  • Ontogenetic ritualization
  • Species-typical
  • Family-typical
  • Monkey alarm calls
  • Young chimpanzees
  • Nonhuman primate
  • Language
  • Combinations
  • Semantics
  • Behavior
  • Gorilla


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