Animal Cognition

, Volume 14, Issue 5, pp 745–767 | Cite as

The gestural repertoire of the wild chimpanzee

  • Catherine Hobaiter
  • Richard W. Byrne
Original Paper


Great ape gestural communication is known to be intentional, elaborate and flexible; yet there is controversy over the best interpretation of the system and how gestures are acquired, perhaps because most studies have been made in restricted, captive settings. Here, we report the first systematic analysis of gesture in a population of wild chimpanzees. Over 266 days of observation, we recorded 4,397 cases of intentional gesture use in the Sonso community, Budongo, Uganda. We describe 66 distinct gesture types: this estimate appears close to asymptote, and the Sonso repertoire includes most gestures described informally at other sites. Differences in repertoire were noted between individuals and age classes, but in both cases, the measured repertoire size was predicted by the time subjects were observed gesturing. No idiosyncratic usages were found, i.e. no gesture type was used only by one individual. No support was found for the idea that gestures are acquired by ‘ontogenetic ritualization’ from originally effective actions; moreover, in detailed analyses of two gestures, action elements composing the gestures did not closely match those of the presumed original actions. Rather, chimpanzee gestures are species-typical; indeed, many are ‘family-typical’, because gesture types recorded in gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzee overlap extensively, with 24 gestures recorded in all three genera. Nevertheless, chimpanzee gestures are used flexibly across a range of contexts and show clear adjustment to audience (e.g. silent gestures for attentive targets, contact gestures for inattentive ones). Such highly intentional use of a species-typical repertoire raises intriguing questions for the evolution of advanced communication.


Communication Pan Intentional gesture Ontogenetic ritualization Species-typical Family-typical 



We thank all the staff of the Budongo Conservation Field Station, especially Amati Stephen, and thank the BCFS project’s founder Vernon Reynolds and its current scientific director Klaus Zuberbühler for allowing us to work at the site and to use data from the project records. For permission to work in Uganda, we thank the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology, the Presidents Office, the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Uganda Forest Authority. Fieldwork of CH was generously supported by grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation ( and the Russell Trust. The thoughtful comments of three anonymous referees were useful in improving the clarity of our theory and writing.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution and Scottish Primate Research Group, School of PsychologyUniversity of St AndrewsSt Andrews, FifeScotland, UK

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