Animal Cognition

, Volume 13, Issue 4, pp 591–607 | Cite as

Triadic and collaborative play by gorillas in social games with objects

Original Paper


Interaction with others over objects has until recently been thought lacking in the social play of non-human great apes, in contrast to that of children; even now, only bonobos have been observed to engage in social play involving objects. Human children’s triadic interactions with objects involve joint attention, showing and giving, communication that maintains interaction, and sharing of emotions and experiences. We question assertions that chimpanzees, and non-human great apes in general, lack the key characteristics of children’s collaborative play. Here, we show that zoo gorillas play games that are both triadic and collaborative. These games were videotaped at the San Francisco Zoo in five different years and involved five different pairings of gorillas. The context was in most cases playfully competitive, involving objects such as balls, bags and leather pieces as foci of joint attention; the ostensible goal in most games was to gain or keep possession of a particular object. In some episodes, roles as possessor or pursuer of an object were exchanged many times; in others, one gorilla retained possession of an object but encouraged pursuit from a partner. Through gaze and gesture, gorillas invited others to: share interest in and attention to objects; share patterns of play; and re-engage after breaks in play. Sometimes, gorillas would assist others in their efforts to engage in collaborative play: older gorillas encouraged younger partners by ‘self-handicapping’ their own actions. Collaborative games may occur later in the ontogeny of gorillas than in humans, and depend on the challenges and artifacts available in a particular group’s habitat.


Great ape Communication Object play Triadic interaction Joint attention Intersubjectivity 



The authors thank Barbara King, David Leavens, and two anonymous reviewers for extremely helpful comments and discussion that have assisted us in shaping this paper. Nameera Akhtar and Robert Fagen have also been invaluable sources of information and thoughtful input. We thank Charles L. Ernest for many years of camera work and technical assistance of all sorts. We also thank San Francisco Zoo keeper Mary Kerr for sharing historical knowledge of the gorilla troop we studied.


  1. Akhtar N (2005) Is joint attention necessary for language learning? In: Homer B, Tamis-LeMonde C (eds) The development of social cognition and communication. Erlbaum, Mahwah, pp 165–179Google Scholar
  2. Akhtar N, Gernsbacher M (2007) Joint attention and vocabulary development: a critical look. Lang Linguist Compass 1:195–207CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Akhtar N, Gernsbacher M (2008) On privileging the role of gaze in infant social cognition. Child Dev Perspect 2:60–66Google Scholar
  4. Boesch C, Boesch-Ackermann H (2000) The chimpanzees of the Tai forest: behavioural ecology and evolution. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  5. Burghardt G (2005) The genesis of animal play. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  6. Byrne RW (1995) The thinking ape: evolutionary origins of intelligence. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  7. Call J, Tomasello M (1996) The effect of humans on the cognitive development of apes. In: Russon A, Bard K, Parker S (eds) Reaching into thought: the minds of the great apes. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 371–403Google Scholar
  8. Carpenter M, Tomasello M, Savage-Rumbaugh S (1995) Joint attention and imitative learning in children, chimpanzees, and enculturated chimpanzees. Soc Dev 4:217–237CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cartmill E, Byrne RW (2007) Orangutans modify their gestural signalling according to their audience’s comprehension. Curr Biol 17:1345–1348CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Crawford M (1937) The cooperative solving of problems by young chimpanzees. Comparative psychology monograph. Johns Hopkins Press, BaltimoreGoogle Scholar
  11. Diamond J, Bond A (1999) Kea, bird of paradox: the evolution and behaviour of a New Zealand parrot. University of California Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  12. Fagen R (1981) Animal play behaviour. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  13. Fossey D (1979) Gorillas in the mist. Houghton Mifflin, BostonGoogle Scholar
  14. Genty E, Byrne RW (2009) Why do gorillas make sequences of gestures? Anim Cog doi  10.1007/s10071-009-0266-4
  15. Genty E, Breuer T, Hobaiter C, Byrne RW (2009) Gestural communication of the gorilla (Gorilla gorilla): repertoire, intentionality and possible origins. Anim Cog 12:527–546CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Gomez J (1990) The emergence of intentional communication as a problem-solving strategy in the gorilla. In: Parker S, Gibson K (eds) “Language” and intelligence in monkeys and apes. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 333–355CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Gomez J (1991) Visual behaviour as a window for reading the minds of others in primates. In: Whiten A (ed) Natural theories of mind: evolution, development and simulation of everyday mindreading. Blackwell, Oxford, pp 195–207Google Scholar
  18. Gomez J (1994) Mutual awareness in primate communication: a Gricean approach. In: Parker S, Boccia M, Mitchell R (eds) Self-recognition and awareness in apes, monkeys and children. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 61–80Google Scholar
  19. Gomez J (1996) Ostensive behavior in great apes: the role of eye contact. In: Russon A, Bard K, Parker S (eds) Reaching into thought: the minds of the great apes. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 131–151Google Scholar
  20. Gomez J (2004) Apes, monkeys, children and the growth of mind. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  21. Goodall J (1968) The behaviour of free-living chimpanzees in the Gombe stream area. Anim Behav Monogr 1:161–311Google Scholar
  22. Goodall J (1986) The chimpanzees of Gombe. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  23. Hare B, Tomasello M (2004) Chimpanzees are more skilful in competitive than co-operative cognitive tasks. Anim Behav 68:571–581CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Ingmanson E (1996) Tool using behaviour in wild Pan paniscus: social and ecological considerations. In: Russon A, Bard K, Parker S (eds) Reaching into thought: the minds of the great apes. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 190–210Google Scholar
  25. Leavens D, Racine T (2009) Joint attention in apes and humans: are humans unique? J Conscious Stud 16:240–267Google Scholar
  26. Leavens D, Hopkins W, Bard K (2005) Understanding the point of chimpanzee pointing: epigenesis and ecological validity. Curr Dir Psychol Sci 14:185–189CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Leavens D, Hopkins W, Bard K (2008) The heterochronic origins of explicit reference. In: Zlatev J, Racine T, Sinha C, Itkonen E (eds) The shared mind: perspectives on intersubjectivity. John Benjamins, Amsterdam, pp 187–214Google Scholar
  28. Leavens D, Racine T, Hopkins W (2009) The ontogeny and phylogeny of nonverbal deixis. In: Botha R, Knight C (eds) Prehistory of language. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  29. LeVine R, Dixon S, LeVine S, Richman A, Leiderman P, Keefer C, Brazelton T (1994) Child care and culture: lessons from Africa. Cambridge University Press, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Melis A, Hare B, Tomasello M (2006) Engineering cooperation in chimpanzees: tolerance constraints on cooperation. Anim Behav 72:275–286CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Menzel E (1973) Leadership and communication in young chimpanzees. In: Menzel E (ed) Precultural primate behavior. Karger, Basel, pp 192–225Google Scholar
  32. Pika S, Liebal K (2006) Differences and similarities between the natural gestural communication of the great apes and human children. In: Cangelosi A, Smith AD, Smith K (eds) The evolution of language: proceedings of the 6th international conference (EVOLANG6). World Scientific, New Jersey, pp 267–274CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Pika S, Zuberbuhler K (2007) Social games between bonobos and humans: evidence for shared intentionality? Am J Primatol 69:1–6Google Scholar
  34. Pika S, Liebal K, Tomasello M (2003) Gestural communication in young gorillas: repertoire, learning and use. Am J Primatol 60:95–111CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Plooij F (1978) Some basic traits of language in wild chimpanzees? In: Lock A (ed) Action, gesture and symbol. Academic Press, London, pp 111–131Google Scholar
  36. Redshaw M, Locke K (1976) The development of play and social behaviour in two lowland gorilla infants. J Jersey Wildl Preserv Trust, 13th Annual Report: 71–86Google Scholar
  37. Schaller G (1964) Year of the gorilla. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  38. Tanner J (1998) Gestural communication in a group of zoo-living lowland gorillas. Ph.D. thesis, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews (unpublished)Google Scholar
  39. Tanner J (2004) Gestural phrases and gestural exchanges by a pair of zoo-living lowland gorillas. Gesture 4:1–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Tanner J, Byrne R (1993) Concealing facial evidence of mood: perspective-taking in a captive gorilla? Primates 34:451–457CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Tanner J, Byrne R (1996) Representation of action through iconic gesture in a captive lowland gorilla. Curr Anthropol 37:162–173CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Tanner J, Byrne R (1999) The development of spontaneous gestural communication in a group of zoo-living lowland gorillas. In: Parker S, Mitchell R, Miles H (eds) The mentalities of gorillas and orangutans: comparative perspectives. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 211–239CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Tomasello M (2008) Origins of human communication. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  44. Tomasello M, Rakoczy H (2003) What makes human cognition unique? From individual to shared to collective intentionality. Mind Lang 18:121–147Google Scholar
  45. Tomasello M, Carpenter M, Call J, Behne T, Moll H (2005) Understanding and sharing intentions: the origins of cultural cognition. Behav Brain Sci 28:675–691PubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Tomonaga M (2006) Development of chimpanzee social cognition in the first 2 years of life. In: Matsuzawa T, Tomonaga M, Tanaka M (eds) Cognitive development in chimpanzees. Springer, New York, pp 182–197CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Warneken F, Chen F, Tomasello M (2006) Cooperative activities in young children and chimpanzees. Child Dev 77:640–663CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Warneken F, Hare B, Melis A, Hanus D, Tomasello M (2007) Spontaneous altruism by chimpanzees and young children. PLoS Biol 5:1414–1420CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution and Scottish Primate Research Group, School of PsychologyUniversity of St. AndrewsFifeScotland, UK
  2. 2.Santa CruzUSA

Personalised recommendations