Towards a great ape dictionary: inexperienced humans understand common nonhuman ape gestures

Kirsty E. Graham*, Cat Hobaiter*

*Corresponding author for this work

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In the comparative study of human and nonhuman communication, ape gesturing provided the first demonstrations of flexible, intentional communication outside human language. Rich repertoires of these gestures have been described in all ape species, bar one: us. Given that the majority of great ape gestural signals are shared, and their form appears biologically inherited, this creates a conundrum: Where did the ape gestures go in human communication? Here, we test human recognition and understanding of 10 of the most frequently used ape gestures. We crowdsourced data from 5,656 participants through an online game, which required them to select the meaning of chimpanzee and bonobo gestures in 20 videos. We show that humans may retain an understanding of ape gestural communication (either directly inherited or part of more general cognition), across gesture types and gesture meanings, with information on communicative context providing only a marginal improvement in success. By assessing comprehension, rather than production, we accessed part of the great ape gestural repertoire for the first time in adult humans. Cognitive access to an ancestral system of gesture appears to have been retained after our divergence from other apes, drawing deep evolutionary continuity between their communication and our own.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere3001939
Number of pages11
JournalPLoS Biology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 24 Jan 2023


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