The development of gestural communication in great apes

  • Marlen FröhlichEmail author
  • Catherine Hobaiter
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. An evolutionary perspective on the development of primate sociality


Great apes deploy gestural signals in goal-directed and flexible ways across a wide range of social contexts. Despite growing evidence for profound effects of developmental experience on social cognition, socio-ecological factors shaping gesture use are still poorly understood, particularly in apes living in their natural environment. After discussing current ambiguities in terminology and methods, we review recent work implementing a longitudinal and/or cross-sectional approach in great ape gesture acquisition (phylogenetic and ontogenetic origins) and development (ontogenetic trajectories). To understand whether and to what extent the socio-ecological environment influences gestural communication, it is essential to distinguish between the gestural repertoire and gesture usage, which represent different levels of analysis. While the majority of the apes’ gestural repertoire seems to be innate, accumulating evidence shows that the communicative usage of these signals is substantially affected by interactional experiences throughout ontogeny. Nevertheless, since great ape communication is intrinsically multimodal, future developmental research on gesture should incorporate other modes of communication.

Significance statement

Great apes navigate their differentiated social relationships by means of a large and flexible repertoire of gestures. However, gestural ontogeny is still poorly understood, particularly in primates living in their natural environment. We first discuss how the different usages of the term ‘gesture’ have led to a number of apparently disparate views, but highlight that these perspectives each provide their own contribution and may be reconciled by considering them as different levels of explanation. We then review recent studies on the various individual and social factors shaping the gestural use in great apes throughout development, highlighting the impact of socio-ecological factors. While the majority of the apes’ gestural repertoire seems to be innate, the communicative usage of these signals is substantially affected by interactional experiences throughout ontogeny. Given that ape gestural signals are inherently multimodal and are then often combined with other communicative signals, a broad multimodal perspective on gesture is important in order to gain a thorough understanding of the developmental processes underlying great ape communication.


Gesture Communication Development Repertoire Usage Great apes 



We are grateful to Federica Amici and Anja Widdig for their invitation to the topical collection “An evolutionary perspective on the development of primate sociality”. We thank Simone Pika, Carel van Schaik, Richard Byrne, and both the St Andrews Gesture group and the former Humboldt Research group for many insightful discussions on great ape gestures. We also thank Anja Widdig, Jaap van Schaik and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on earlier versions of this manuscript.


MF was supported by the Forschungskredit of the University of Zurich (grant no. FK-17-106) and by the German Research Foundation (grant no. FR 3986/1-1).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland
  2. 2.School of Psychology and Neuroscience, St Marys CollegeUniversity of St AndrewsSt AndrewsScotland

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