Animal Cognition

, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp 317–336 | Cite as

The repertoire and intentionality of gestural communication in wild chimpanzees

  • Anna Ilona RobertsEmail author
  • Samuel George Bradley Roberts
  • Sarah-Jane Vick
Original Paper


A growing body of evidence suggests that human language may have emerged primarily in the gestural rather than vocal domain, and that studying gestural communication in great apes is crucial to understanding language evolution. Although manual and bodily gestures are considered distinct at a neural level, there has been very limited consideration of potential differences at a behavioural level. In this study, we conducted naturalistic observations of adult wild East African chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) in order to establish a repertoire of gestures, and examine intentionality of gesture production, use and comprehension, comparing across manual and bodily gestures. At the population level, 120 distinct gesture types were identified, consisting of 65 manual gestures and 55 bodily gestures. Both bodily and manual gestures were used intentionally and effectively to attain specific goals, by signallers who were sensitive to recipient attention. However, manual gestures differed from bodily gestures in terms of communicative persistence, indicating a qualitatively different form of behavioural flexibility in achieving goals. Both repertoire size and frequency of manual gesturing were more affiliative than bodily gestures, while bodily gestures were more antagonistic. These results indicate that manual gestures may have played a significant role in the emergence of increased flexibility in great ape communication and social bonding.


Gestural communication Gestural repertoire Intentionality Communicative persistence Chimpanzee Pan troglodytes 



The fieldwork for this research has been funded by an Economic and Social Research Council + 3 studentship and by the University of Stirling to A.R. We thank Professor Klaus Zuberbühler, the National Council for Science and Technology and Uganda Wildlife Authority in Uganda for granting permission for this work, and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland for providing core funding for the Budongo Conservation Field Station. We thank the staff at Budongo Conservation Field Station, Uganda, especially Geresomu Muhumuza and Amati Steven for providing excellent support in the field.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOC 35 kb)
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Supplementary material 2 (DOC 56 kb)
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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anna Ilona Roberts
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Samuel George Bradley Roberts
    • 1
  • Sarah-Jane Vick
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of ChesterChesterUK
  2. 2.Budongo Conservation Field StationMasindiUganda
  3. 3.Psychology, School of Natural SciencesUniversity of StirlingStirlingUK

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