Researchers Decode Chimpanzee Gestures So Now We Can Basically Talk to Animals

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As it turns out, our distant relatives, chimpanzees, have more in common with us than just DNA: communication. A recent study published in Current Biology discovered that wild chimpanzees use 66 gestures to communicate 19 different meanings. A good example of a communication habit we share with our chimp friends: a shove means "Stop that!"

The study, conducted by Dr. Catherine Hobaiter and Professor Richard Byrne, is actually the first to decode the gestures chimpanzees make, according to Telegraph. But why is this so important? For one, apes are known to communicate primarily with their body movements. Two, it can actually help us as humans understand our language origins, seeing as these guys are our ancestors. Yes, now I’ve got your attention.

To conduct the study, Hobaiter observed and documented chimpanzees living in the Budongo Forest Reserve in western Kenya — specifically focusing on their forms of communication, Wired reported. During an 18-month period, she recorded over 4,500 “chimp-to-chimp” gestures. Other than the meanings behind the gestures, the study brought up another very important detail: aside from humans, chimpanzees are the only other animals with a system of “intentional communication”. According to Wired, Byrne even goes so far as to say this is the "closest thing to human language you can see in nature."

This brings me to the most important part of this article: what the gestures actually mean! A few resemble our body language, like saying “Stop that,” for example, is expressed with a a push, a slap, or a tap (just to name a few). Another human-like gesture: an arm or hand swing means “move away.” There are also a couple that seem a bit distant from any human gesture, like the one for “initiate grooming” which involves a “big loud scratch.” A loud scratch can also indicate either “travel with me” or “attend to a specific location.” (Check out Telegraph to see more chimpanzee gesture translations.)

OK, sure, we don't exactly scratch ourselves or our friends to really indicate anything other than "I'm clearly delusional right now." But the fact that this could help us understand the origins of human language and communication is pretty amazing!