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Title: Emerging language : cognition and gestural communication in wild and language trained chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)
Author: Roberts, Anna I.
ISNI:       0000 0004 2705 9221
Awarding Body: University of Stirling
Current Institution: University of Stirling
Date of Award: 2010
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An important element in understanding the evolutionary origin of human language is to explore homologous traits in cognition and communication between primates and humans (Burling, 1993, Hewes, 1973). One proposed modality of language evolution is that of gestural communication, defined as communicative movements of hands without using or touching objects (de Waal, 2003). While homologies between primate calls and language have been relatively well explored, we still have a limited understanding of how cognitive abilities may have shaped the characteristics of primate gestures (Corballis, 2003). Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) are our closest living relatives and display some complex cognitive skills in various aspects of their gestural behaviour in captivity (de Waal, 2003, Pollick and de Waal, 2007). However, it is not yet currently clear to what extent these abilities seen in captive apes are typical of chimpanzees in general and to what extent cognitive capacities observed in captive chimpanzees have been enhanced by the socio-cultural environment of captivity such as language training. In this Ph.D. research, I investigated the cognitive skills underlying gestural communication in both wild and language trained chimpanzees, with a special focus on the repertoire and the intentionality of production and comprehension. The study of cognitive skills underlying the production of the repertoire and the role of intentionality is important because these skills are cognitively demanding and are a prerequisite in human infants for their ability to acquire language (Baldwin, 1995, Olson, 1993). My research suggests that chimpanzee gestural communication is cognitively complex and may be homologous with the cognitive skills evident in pre-verbal infants on the cusp of language acquisition. Chimpanzees display a multifaceted and complex signal repertoire of manual gestures. These gestures are the prototypes, within which there is variation, and between which the boundaries are not clear-cut, but there is gradation apparent along several morphological components. Both wild and language trained chimpanzees communicate intentionally about their perceived desires and the actions that they want the recipients to undertake. They do not just express their emotions, but they communicate flexibly by adjusting their communicative tactics in response to the comprehension states of the recipient. Whilst chimpanzees communicate their intentions flexibly, the messages conveyed are specific. However, recipients comprehend gestures flexibly in light of the signaller’s overall intentions. Whilst wild and language trained chimpanzee gestural communication revealed similar cognitive characteristics, language trained chimpanzees outperformed wild apes in that they had ability to use signals which made distinctions that human deictic words can make. Whilst these differences between wild and language trained chimpanzees may be due to the different methodological approaches used, it is conceivable that language training may have influenced captive ape cognitive skills in the representational domain. These results from wild and language trained chimpanzees indicate that chimpanzees possess some form of cognitive skills necessary for language development and that cognitive skills underlying repertoire and use in chimpanzees are a shared capacity between humans, other apes and a common ancestor. These findings render theories of the gestural origins of language more plausible. Related publications: 1. Roberts, A. I., Vick, S.-J., Roberts, S. G. B., Buchanan-Smith, H. M. & Zuberbühler, K. 2012. A structure-based repertoire of manual gestures in wild chimpanzees: Statistical analyses of a graded communication system. Evolution and Human Behavior, Published online: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2012.05.006 2. Roberts, A. I., Vick, S.-J. & Buchanan-Smith, H. 2012. Usage and comprehension of manual gestures in wild chimpanzees. Animal Behaviour, Published online:
Supervisor: Vick, Sarah-Jane ; Buchanan-Smith, Hannah M. Sponsor: Economic and Social Research Council ; Department of Psychology, University of Stirling
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: gestural communication ; chimpanzee ; Wild and language-trained chimpanzee behaviour ; Social behavior in animals ; Chimpanzees ; Captive chimpanzees Behavior