Animal Cognition

, Volume 16, Issue 4, pp 653–666 | Cite as

The ontogenetic ritualization of bonobo gestures

  • Marta HalinaEmail author
  • Federico Rossano
  • Michael Tomasello
Original Paper


Great apes communicate with gestures in flexible ways. Based on several lines of evidence, Tomasello and colleagues have posited that many of these gestures are learned via ontogenetic ritualization—a process of mutual anticipation in which particular social behaviors come to function as intentional communicative signals. Recently, Byrne and colleagues have argued that all great ape gestures are basically innate. In the current study, for the first time, we attempted to observe the process of ontogenetic ritualization as it unfolds over time. We focused on one communicative function between bonobo mothers and infants: initiation of “carries” for joint travel. We observed 1,173 carries in ten mother–infant dyads. These were initiated by nine different gesture types, with mothers and infants using many different gestures in ways that reflected their different roles in the carry interaction. There was also a fair amount of variability among the different dyads, including one idiosyncratic gesture used by one infant. This gestural variation could not be attributed to sampling effects alone. These findings suggest that ontogenetic ritualization plays an important role in the origin of at least some great ape gestures.


Bonobo Communication Gesture Great ape Ontogenetic ritualization Pan paniscus 



We thank Maria John for coding assistance, Roger Mundry for statistical assistance, and the staff of the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center for their help and support in collecting video. We also thank Christel Schneider and Christine Johnson for generously sharing their video material with us. This research was conducted in association with the Evolutionary Roots of Human Social Interaction (ROSI) group and was supported in part by a German-American Fulbright Full Grant.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marta Halina
    • 1
    Email author
  • Federico Rossano
    • 2
  • Michael Tomasello
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of California, San DiegoLa JollaUSA
  2. 2.Department of Developmental and Comparative PsychologyMax Planck Institute for Evolutionary AnthropologyLeipzigGermany

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