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Semantics of primate gestures: intentional meanings of orangutan gestures

Abstract

Great ape gesture has become a research topic of intense interest, because its intentionality and flexibility suggest strong parallels to human communication. Yet the fundamental question of whether an animal species’ gestures carry specific meanings has hardly been addressed. We set out a systematic approach to studying intentional meaning in the gestural communication of non-humans and apply it to a sample of orangutan gestures. We propose that analysis of meaning should be limited to gestures for which (1) there is strong evidence for intentional production and (2) the recipient’s final reaction matches the presumed goal of the signaller, as determined independently. This produces a set of “successful” instances of gesture use, which we describe as having goal–outcome matches. In this study, 28 orangutans in three European zoos were observed for 9 months. We distinguished 64 gestures on structural grounds, 40 of which had frequent goal–outcome matches and could therefore be analysed for meaning. These 40 gestures were used predictably to achieve one of 6 social goals: to initiate an affiliative interaction (contact, grooming, or play), request objects, share objects, instigate co-locomotion, cause the partner to move back, or stop an action. Twenty-nine of these gestures were used consistently with a single meaning. We tested our analysis of gesture meaning by examining what gesturers did when the response to their gesture did not match the gesture’s meaning. Subsequent actions of the gesturer were consistent with our assignments of meaning to gestures. We suggest that, despite their contextual flexibility, orangutan gestures are made with the expectation of specific behavioural responses and thus have intentional meanings as well as functional consequences.

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Notes

  1. By information present in a signal, we mean any quality of a signal that is predictably associated with an external event or internal state of the signaller and is thus a reliable indicator of an entity, state, or act external to the production of the signal itself. For a discussion of the importance of defining information and meaning, see Rendall et al. (2009).

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank the staff and directors of Apenheul Primate Park, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, and Twycross Zoo for their support and encouragement of this study. We warmly thank J. G. Foster, M. Cartmill, and K. Brown for their reviews of the manuscript, as well as J. C. Gomez and P. Lee for their comments on the methodology. Funding for the project came from the University of St Andrews and the Russell Trust.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest with any of the organizations involved in the study.

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Correspondence to Richard W. Byrne.

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Cartmill, E.A., Byrne, R.W. Semantics of primate gestures: intentional meanings of orangutan gestures. Anim Cogn 13, 793–804 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-010-0328-7

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-010-0328-7

Keywords

  • Great ape
  • Method
  • Meaning
  • Intention
  • Primate communication