International Journal of Primatology

, Volume 35, Issue 2, pp 411–424 | Cite as

Wild-Born Orangutans (Pongo abelii) Engage in Triadic Interactions During Play

  • Thibaud GruberEmail author


It has long been held that triadic interactions, or interactions between individuals that include shared perception and goals concerning an outside entity, require elaborate cognitive processes such as joint attention. With their connection to shared intentionality, triadic interactions have been a key topic of interest for developmental and evolutionary psychologists, notably when making comparisons between humans and other ape species. There is good evidence that chimpanzees and bonobos engage in triadic interactions; however, convincing evidence for orangutans are more limited and so far have been found only in the context of feeding. I engaged 11 wild-born sanctuary orangutans through the medium of a stick, allowing them to decide how to use the object and how to interact with me. The participating orangutans developed idiosyncratic ways of using the stick and engaging with me during the activity, and six of them alternated their gaze between the stick and me. When I interrupted the activity, the participating orangutans displayed more numerous and different behaviors than before the interruption to actively reengage me in the game. Much like human infants, they appeared more interested in the social interaction than in the stick. These findings confirm that triadic interactions occur in nonenculturated orangutans and are consistent with studies of other nonhuman great ape species, which also show triadic interactions, suggesting that joint attention and potentially shared intentionality may have an early origin in our evolutionary history.


Great apes Joint attention Object play Orangutan Pongo Triadic interaction 



I thank the Indonesian Research and Technology Ministry (RISTEK) and all competent authorities for authorization to work in Indonesia, Ian Singleton and staff at Batu Mbelin, and Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari (YEL) for assistance at Sibolangit. I thank the Universitas Nasional (UNAS) for their support and collaboration, particularly Pak Tatang Mitra Setia, Ibu Sri Suci Utami Atmoko, and Fitriah Basalamah. I thank the Fyssen Foundation and the A. H. Schultz Foundation for supporting my work in Indonesia and Zanna Clay, Cat Hobaiter, Maria van Noordwijk, and Eliane Müller for English proofing and comments on earlier versions of the manuscript. I thank Joanna Setchell and two anonymous reviewers for their comments.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre Norbert Elias, UMR8562, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, France & Anthropological Institute and MuseumUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland
  2. 2.Institut de BiologieUniversité de NeuchâtelNeuchâtelSwitzerland

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