, Volume 37, Issue 2, pp 319–328 | Cite as

Reconsidering the Role of Manual Imitation in Language Evolution

  • Antonella TramacereEmail author
  • Richard Moore


In this paper, we distinguish between a number of different phenomena that have been called imitation, and identify one form—a high fidelity mechanism for social learning—considered to be crucial for the development of language. Subsequently, we consider a common claim in the language evolution literature, which is that prior to the emergence of vocal language our ancestors communicated using a sophisticated gestural protolanguage (the ‘gesture-first view’), the learning of some parts of which required manual imitation. Drawing upon evidence from recent work in neuroscience, primatology, and archeology, we argue that while gestural communication undoubtedly played a crucial role in language evolution, the grounds for thinking that manual imitation did are currently unconvincing.


Language evolution Imitation Mirror neuron system Social learning Primate communication 



For helpful discussions of this manuscript, the authors would like to thank Claudio Tennie, an audience at the Berlin School of Mind and Brain, and three anonymous reviewers.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflicts of interest

The authors declare they have no conflicts of interest.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Lichtenberg-KollegGeorg-August-University GöttingenDeutsche Primaten ZentrumGermany
  2. 2.Berlin School of Mind and BrainHumboldt-Universität zu BerlinBerlinGermany

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