Scots scientists begin study to find if modern man can still speak ape

An online experiment to investigate whether humans can understand the meaning of ape gestures has been created by researchers at the University of St Andrews
An online experiment to investigate whether humans can understand the meaning of ape gestures has been created by researchers at the University of St Andrews
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Chimpanzees and bonobos are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, sharing almost 99 per cent of their genes with humans.

It is true that we diverged from our ape cousins in the dim and distant past, evolving to walk upright and talk. However, we still display common traits to this day.

Apes groom each other’s hair to remove small insects and dirt, and hug, touch and kiss to show support. But can we still understand each other without speech? Do homo sapiens have any innate ability to interpret other primates’ language?

Scottish scientists have launched an innovative new study to find out.

A team of academics from the Gesture Lab at the University of St Andrews have devised an online test where members of the public are invited to view videos of chimpanzees and bonobos interacting in the wild and judge what their gestures mean.

The researchers have been studying African great apes for more than a decade, finding links to the evolutionary origins of human language.

Studies have revealed chimpanzees and bonobos use more than 60 different gestures to communicate with each other, with many the same across both species.

The team has recently decoded many of these actions to create a great ape “dictionary” that lets them follow what the apes are saying to each other.

The pioneering reference work will be published at the end of the year, once the latest experiment is completed.

Dr Kirsty Graham and Dr Catherine Hobaiter, from the university’s School of Psychology and Neuroscience, created the online quiz.

Dr Hobaiter said: “We have found that different species of ape use many of the same gestures, but at the moment there’s one ape missing from the picture – us.

“We might not use our ape gestures to communicate ­every day any more, but perhaps we still understand what some of them mean.”

Not until 1929 did scientists realise bonobos are a distinct species from chimpanzees. Now they could be the first great apes to become extinct in the wild, with only around 30,000 left.

In the past few decades their habitat, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been overrun by soldiers and the apes slaughtered for food.