Animal Cognition

, Volume 22, Issue 4, pp 473–486 | Cite as

How primates acquire their gestures: evaluating current theories and evidence

  • Katja LiebalEmail author
  • Christel Schneider
  • Manuela Errson-Lembeck
Original Paper
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Evolving the study of gesture


Mechanisms underlying gesture acquisition in primates are largely unstudied, yet heavily debated. While some studies suggest that gestural repertoires are largely innate, others emphasize that gestures emerge and are shaped in social interactions with other conspecifics. There is agreement, however, regarding the negligible role of imitation for the acquisition of gestures. The aim of this paper is to provide an overview of the current knowledge about gesture acquisition in nonhuman primates, to introduce the corresponding mechanisms suggested to be involved, and to discuss how findings from current studies support the different theories of gesture acquisition. We suggest that seemingly inconsistent findings across different research groups can be reconciled by pointing to differences between their research foci as well as methods of data collection. The additional comparison of the developmental pathways of gestural and facial communication highlights the complex interplay of genetic as well as social factors involved in shaping a species repertoire. We close by proposing that extending longitudinal studies, which capture the onset and usage of gestures in young primates, and which include the comparisons of several species and groups in different environments, will enable us to better understand developmental pathways of gestural communication in primates.


Gestures Facial expression Genetic channeling Ontogenetic ritualization Imitation Social transmission Great apes 



We are very grateful to Michael Tomasello and Josep Call for giving permission to conduct observations and to analyze existing video footage at the Wolfgang-Köhler-Primate Research Center, Leipzig, used in some of the studies reported in this paper. We also want to thank the following zoos for their continued support during data collection: Apenheul and Burgers’ Zoo (Holland), Dierenpark Planckendael (Belgium), Zoo Leipzig, Zoo and Tierpark Berlin, Tierpark Hellabrunn, Allwetterzoo Muenster, Tiergarten Ulm, Zoo Wilhelma, Zoo Eberswalde, Zoo Osnabrück, Tierpark Jaderberg (Germany), ZSL London Zoo, Twycross Zoo, Drusillas Zoo Park, Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, Belfast Zoo (United Kingdom), Mulhouse Zoo (France), Zurich Zoo (Switzerland), Dyrepark Kristiansand (Norway), Parken Zoo Eskilstuna (Sweden), and Randers Regnskov (Denmark).


This study was partly funded by Volkswagen Foundation “Towards a Grammar of Gesture: Evolution, Brain, and Linguistic Structures (ToGoG, #II/82175)”, and supported by the Freie Universität Berlin within the Excellence Initiative of the German Research Foundation.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed.


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© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Education and Psychology, Comparative Developmental PsychologyFreie Universität BerlinBerlinGermany
  2. 2.School of PsychologyUniversity of East LondonLondonUK

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