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Case Study: Primate Communication & Language

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Do monkeys communicate? Does it matter? In this lesson, we'll examine communication within different kinds of primates and see what this can tell us about one specific species of great apes: ourselves.

Communicating with Primates

Have you ever wondered about primate communication? You're far from alone, but did you also know that there are simple tests you can perform to study this, without needing an advanced degree in primatology? Try this: pick up a pen. Throw it at the person nearest you. Now, ask for the pen back and record their reaction.

Chances are, you've elicited a response in the test subject, one encouraging communication. You've also likely made a new enemy, but such are the risks we face as researchers.

The truth is that communication is a huge part of research in all primates, which are mammals with relatively large brains and opposable thumbs. This broad taxonomical order includes humans, as well as the smaller, tailed creatures called monkeys and the larger, tailless great apes. Primates are a diverse order, but one thing we all have in common is that communication is important. But what does this mean, and does it mean the same thing for all primates? Let's talk about it.

Traits of Primate Communication

Let's start by looking at the ways that primates communicate. Communication is important in all primary species, largely thanks to the fact that primates tend to live in social units where interaction and cooperation are necessary for survival. However, this communication tends to look different within different groups of primates.

Monkeys communicate mainly through vocalizations.
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Monkeys are smaller primates, with smaller brains (although large relative to other non-primate species of the same size). Communication between monkeys tends to rely heavily on vocalizations, from chirps to screams to howls. These noises often serve as warnings or alarms, and some scientists believe that some monkeys are capable of associating specific sounds with ideas.

The great apes, on the other five-fingered hand, are larger and have larger brains. They live in more tightly knit social units and often travel in close groups. Members of the great apes include orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and humans. Most great apes (humans excepted) rely less on vocalizations and more on body language to communicate. From facial expressions to body postures to complex gesturing, most great ape interaction is based on these physical symbols. Of particular importance are what we call affiliative gestures and behaviors, those that encourage social bonding. In many great apes, grooming or touching is one of the most important forms of nonverbal communication and yes, this extends to humans. In fact, studies have shown that humans have biological responses to petting dogs; it calms us down because we are programmed with affiliative behaviors.

Humans do, of course, merit our own category when discussing communication. Humans are the only primates (and in fact the only species) to develop true languages. Our communication systems are primarily based in complex vocalizations, although body language is still a major part of how we interact and interpret each other's intentions. Humans are also unique in that our languages don't seem to be instinctively programmed the way a monkey's calls might be. We are built to understand language, but those languages themselves are totally arbitrary and culturally constructed. For years, researchers in the mid-20th century tried to locate evidence of a universal grammar in human languages, but none has ever been found.

Communication between Humans and Great Apes

Humans are by far the most sophisticated communicators on the planet, but the great apes easily come in second place. In fact, great apes are skilled enough at communication that it is possible for humans and greats apes to truly communicate. This was first accepted by the scientific community in the mid-20th century, when a female chimpanzee named Washoe was taught a number of gestures in American Sign Language.

Chimpanzees, like most great apes, rely heavily on gestures for communication.
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