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Claim: Language originated in hand gestures. How do we know?


Researchers say, because humans can interpret chimp hand gestures:

Graham’s St. Andrews colleague Catherine Hobaiter built a similar body-language dictionary by observing the East African chimpanzees at the Budongo Central Forest Reserve in Uganda. The gestures of both species, which are humans’ two closest relatives, are more complex and varied than their vocalizations, which mainly reflect urgent needs such as finding food or spotting predators.

By contrast, the apes’ gestures serve as a deliberate way of conveying specific everyday goals, leading some scientists to believe that these signals are the precursors to human language. “They are using gestures in a way that is more languagelike, and so there’s this theory that human language might have evolved from this gestural basis,” Graham says.

In a paper published today in PLOS Biology, Graham and Hobaiter provide startling evidence that this ancestral ability may persist in modern humans. They show that our species can make a pretty good guess of the meanings of chimp and bonobo gestures, another hint that language may have evolved from an elaborate system of hand and body signals.

Ingrid Wickelgren, “Humans Can Correctly Guess the Meaning of Chimp Gestures” at Scientific American (January 24, 2022) The paper is open access.

No, sorry. There is lots of info out there featuring people making nice with octopuses and interpreting their gestures. But at least no one claims that human language evolved from that. It was closer to the other way around, actually…

You may also wish to read: Octopuses get emotional about pain, research suggests. The smartest of invertebrates, the octopus, once again prompts us to rethink what we believe to be the origin of intelligence. The brainy cephalopods behaved about the same as lab rats under similar conditions, raising both neuroscience and ethical issues.

You may also wish to read: But, in the end, did the chimpanzee really talk? A recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine sheds light on the motivations behind the need to see bonobos as something like an oppressed people, rather than apes in need of protection.

Andrew at 6, Sev wishes he was in the Planet of the Apes movie. relatd
Sev's Betters tell him he's an ape, and he believes them. Thus the relationship is maintained, Zookeeper and Beast. Andrew asauber
All I know is that my 1 1/2 year old can’t speak a single word, but he can make himself understood with simple hand gestures and basic sign language. Ford Prefect
In 2014, Noah Chomsky, and other luminaries in the subject of language, essentially called it quits. In May that year they published, “The Mystery of Language Evolution,” in which they admitted that the richness of ideas for origin of speech was accompanied by a sheer poverty of evidence. Language was still a mystery after at least 150 years of research and speculation; another issue stranded in the guesses segment of the scientific method. In chapter 2 of “The Descent of Man, comparison of the mental powers of man and the lower animals, Darwin set out his stab as to how language evolved. He laid out his speech theory in stages; the first stage being imitation of natural sounds, “I cannot doubt that language owes its origin to the imitation and modification of various natural sounds, the voices of other animals.” …mainly by listening to the birds, then, man “probably first used his voice in producing true musical cadences, that is, in singing ...especially exerted during courtship of the sexes.” It seems that singing morphed into language when the ladies worked out the where’s and when’s implied in the song. Belfast
Seversky at 2, The Great Seversky has spoken! Soon to exit, stage left... Sorry Sev. No evidence of our ape-like-ness. relatd
I'm an ape, you're an ape, we're all "damn, dirty ape"s. Seversky
The extreme bias toward evolution leads to scientists wasting their time. It has been shown that chimps/apes are a separate species. Humans are not apes. relatd

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