Current Developments in Non-human Primate Gesture Research

Simone Pika

Organized by Simone Pika (Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany) & Katja Liebal (Freie Universität Berlin, Germany)

The Primate Gesture Center

The study of primate communication started with an emphasis on facial displays, which offered the most concrete and convincing examples to show that also human behaviour has its phylogenetically determined “fixed action patterns”. This was important in a time when an evolutionary continuity between man and other animals in the realm of behaviour and psychology was far from accepted.

A few decades later, the focus of communication studies has broadened to include vocalizations but also movements of the hands, head and limbs, called gestures. Today, it is precisely the seeming undeterminedness or flexibility of non-human primate gestural communication that fascinates researchers. It appears to be “the missing link” to that particular human characteristic that is assumed to set us apart from other species, namely the freedom to develop symbols.

The workshop was a continuation of the workshop Gestural communication in non-human and human primates, held in 2004 at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. In addition to many of the major scholars in the field of non-human primate gesture research such as Jan van Hooff, University of Utrecht, the Netherlands (‘Gestures, postures and the dynamics of movement: What others make of it’), William D. Hopkins, Yerkes Primate Research Centr, USA (‘Cognitive and neuroanatomical correlates of gestures in captive chimpanzees’) and David Leavens, University of Sussex, UK (‘Idols of the theatre: False demonstrations of human uniqueness in gestural signaling’), the workshop also enabled fruitful interdisciplinary exchange and discussion with researchers of other disciplines such as Tim Racine, Simon Fraser University, Canada (‘Do primates share intentions with others when they gesture?’), Sherman Wilcox, University of New Mexico, USA (‘Hands and faces: What a signed language linguist would like to learn from primate gesture research’) and Ray Wilkinson, University of Manchester, UK (Wilkinson, Leudar & Pika, ‘Requesting and sharing: A new look on chimpanzee’s gestures’).

Furthermore, we especially had encouraged national (Christel Schneider, Free University Berlin, Germany, Schneider & Liebal, ‘A comparative analysis of early gestural communication in the four non-human great ape species, Sebastian Tempelmann, Free University Berlin, Germany, Tempelmann & Liebal, ‘Apes’ assessment of a human’s adequacy as food giver and the role of the attentional state’) and international students (Catherine Hobaiter, University of St. Andrews, UK, Hobaiter & Byrne, ‘How do wild chimpanzees acquire gestures?’; Mark Laidre, Princeton University, USA, ‘Monkey gestural communication: what do mandrills have to say?’; Nicole Scott, University of Roehampton, UK, Scott & Pika, ‘A call for conformity: Gesture studies in human and non-human primates’) to present pilot data and/or their ongoing work.

The workshop enabled an impressive overview of the present state of the art in non-human primate gesture research and fruitful discussion and interchange with a special emphasis on its history, interdisciplinary perspectives, developments and future directions. The majority of contributions will be published in the Gesture Studies Series published by John Benjamins Publishing Company in 2011.

The next workshop will take place in connection with the 5th conference of the International Society for Gesture Studies. In addition, in connection with the newly founded research group ‘Comparative Gestural Signalling’ led by Simone Pika at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany (, annual think-tanks will be organized to enable small groups of renowned experts to discuss distinct topics such as for instance flexibility and social learning, and to develop new collaborations and research strategies.

Brunhilda and Dizzy
Hare and Dolphy

1 Comment on Current Developments in Non-human Primate Gesture Research

  1. This sounds like a fascinating workshop. I think that more attention could be paid to what might be called mico-gestures. very small m,ovements of hands or face. quick gaze shifts etc. I am sure that a lot of information between primates is communicated at levels that would almost seem subliminal to us. First we have to se the big gstures, then the smaller ones.

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