Animal Cognition

, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 155–163 | Cite as

Olive baboons communicate intentionally by pointing

  • Hélène MeunierEmail author
  • J. Prieur
  • J. Vauclair
Original Paper


A pointing gesture creates a referential triangle that incorporates distant objects into the relationship between the signaller and the gesture’s recipient. Pointing was long assumed to be specific to our species. However, recent reports have shown that pointing emerges spontaneously in captive chimpanzees and can be learned by monkeys. Studies have demonstrated that both human children and great apes use manual gestures (e.g. pointing), and visual and vocal signals, to communicate intentionally about out-of-reach objects. Our study looked at how monkeys understand and use their learned pointing behaviour, asking whether it is a conditioned, reinforcement-dependent response or whether monkeys understand it to be a mechanism for manipulating the attention of a partner (e.g. a human). We tested nine baboons that had been trained to exhibit pointing, using operant conditioning. More specifically, we investigated their ability to communicate intentionally about the location of an unreachable food reward in three contexts that differed according to the human partner’s attentional state. In each context, we quantified the frequency of communicative behaviour (auditory and visual signals), including gestures and gaze alternations between the distal food and the human partner. We found that the baboons were able to modulate their manual and visual communicative signals as a function of the experimenter’s attentional state. These findings indicate that monkeys can intentionally produce pointing gestures and understand that a human recipient must be looking at the pointing gesture for them to perform their attention-directing actions. The referential and intentional nature of baboons’ communicative signalling is discussed.


Gestural communication Intentionality Social cognition Non-human primates Papio anubis 



This research was supported by French National Research Agency (ANR) grant number ANR-08-BLAN-0011_01. The authors are sincerely grateful to Anaïs Maugard, Margarita Briseño, Ameline Bardo, Nadège Lechevrel and Pauline Le Sommer for helping with the data collection. The authors would also like to thank Dr Guy Dubreuil for allowing them to conduct the study at the CNRS field station at Rousset-sur-Arc, Jo Di Grandi, Sebastien Guiol, David Pericat and Yannick Autier for their logistical assistance in designing and building the experimental set-up, and all the caretakers for their helpful assistance throughout the study. Thanks are extended to the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on the manuscript and to Elizabeth Portier for correcting the English.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Primatology Centre of Strasbourg UniversityNiederhausbergenFrance
  2. 2.Research Center in the Psychology of Cognition, Language and EmotionAix-Marseille UniversityAix-en-Provence Cedex 1France
  3. 3.UMR 6552 ETHOSUniversity of Rennes 1PaimpontFrance

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