International Journal of Primatology

, Volume 33, Issue 1, pp 246–262 | Cite as

What Role Do Mothers Play in the Gestural Acquisition of Bonobos (Pan paniscus) and Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)?

  • Christel SchneiderEmail author
  • Josep Call
  • Katja Liebal


Contemporary research hypothesizes that biological inheritance and ontogenetic factors shape the development of gestural communication in nonhuman great apes. However, little is known about the specific role that mothers play in the acquisition of their infants’ gestures. We observed 6 bonobo (Pan paniscus) and 4 chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) mother–infant dyads and recorded their gesture types and frequency. We analyzed all behavioral contexts in which gestures occurred as well as the play context alone. Infants of both species were unlikely to share gestures with their mother or unrelated adult females. However, gestural sharing was prevalent within age groups. Within and across species, infant–infant and mother–mother groups were homogeneous regarding the types of gestures they shared, although there was individual variation in the frequency of gesture use. Our findings provide limited evidence that infants learned their gestures by imitating their mothers. Phylogenetic influences seem to be vital in gestural acquisition but, we suggest, repertoire development cannot be disentangled from individual social encounters during life.


Bonobo Chimpanzee Communication Gesture acquisition Mother–infant dyad 



We are especially grateful to Apenheul and Burgers’ Zoo (Holland), Dierenpark Planckendael (Belgium), Zoo Leipzig, Zoo Berlin, and Allwetterzoo Muenster (Germany) for their support and friendliness. We thank M. Chase and H. Gretscher for fruitful discussions and comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript. We express a special thanks to R. Mundry for his ideas and time regarding the statistical procedures. We also thank the reviewers for their helpful comments. This study was part of the interdisciplinary research project Towards a Grammar of Gesture, which was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation (Hannover, Germany).

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christel Schneider
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    Email author
  • Josep Call
    • 4
  • Katja Liebal
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Evolutionary PsychologyFreie Universität BerlinBerlinGermany
  2. 2.Department of Developmental and Comparative PsychologyMax Planck Institute for Evolutionary AnthropologyLeipzigGermany
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of PortsmouthPortsmouthUK
  4. 4.Department of Developmental and Comparative PsychologyMax Planck Institute for Evolutionary AnthropologyLeipzigGermany

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