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.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Unlike language proper we do not suppose that such systems require syntactic structure.
Whiten (2011; Whiten and Ham 1992) has consistently argued that chimpanzees do imitate. However, he adopts a weaker notion of imitation than we do here, according to which imitation is a process “in which B learns some aspect(s) of the form of an act from A” (Whiten and Ham 1992, p. 250). See Fridland and Moore (2014) for discussion of why this definition is unhelpful for language evolution research.
In these cases human-like forms of vocal control are not presupposed, since only the pitch, tone and speed of call parts are matched. See Moore (2013b) for discussion.
In fact these views are not inconsistent. Apes typically gesture either by showing one another parts of their bodies, or by producing gestures that resemble action sequences. Given that apes’ bodies are biologically inherited, and that their action sequences correspond to bodily movements, even ritualised gestures correspond to species-wide biological features.
While the gesture itself is not learned, children’s ability to incorporate points into their communicative repertoire—by supplementing them with gaze alternation between their addressee and an intended referent—improves with training (Matthews et al. 2012).
These are not the oldest tools in the hominin record. The recently discovered Lomekwian toolset dates from around 3.3 mya—predating the Oldowan toolset by 700,000 years (Harmand et al. 2015).
Although chimpanzees may possess some very simple forms of vocal imitation, their vocal abilities are clearly very different from those of competent vocal learner species (such as human beings and songbirds). Their abilities seem to have been enabled by a mutation in the FOXP2 gene that is not present in apes (see footnote 3).
Arbib M (2005) From monkey-like action recognition to human language: an evolutionary framework for neurolinguistics. Behav Brain Sci 28(02):105–124
Arbib M (2012) How the brain got language: the mirror system hypothesis. OUP, Oxford
Arbib MA, Liebal K, Pika S (2008) Primate vocalization, gesture, and the evolution of human language. Curr Anthr 49(6):1053–1076
Bard KA (2007) Neonatal imitation in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) tested with two paradigms. Anim Cogn 10(2):233–242
Bohn M, Call J, Tomasello M (2016) Comprehension of iconic gestures by chimpanzees and human children. J Exp Child Psychol 142:1–17
Bonini L, Ferrari PF (2011) Evolution of mirror systems: a simple mechanism for complex cognitive functions. An NY Acad Sci 1225(1):166–175
Bottjer SW, Johnson F (1997) Circuits, hormones, and learning: vocal behavior in songbirds. J Neurobiol 33(5):602–618
Bråten S (2006) Intersubjective communication and emotion in early ontogeny. Cambridge UP, Cambridge
Buccino G, Binkofski F, Fink GR, Fadiga L, Fogassi L, Gallese V, Seitz RJ, Zilles K, Rizzolatti G, Freund HJ (2001) Action observation activates premotor and parietal areas in a somatotopic manner: an fMRI study. Euro J Neurosci 13(2):400–404
Charman T, Baron-Cohen S, Swettenham J, Baird G, Cox A, Drew A (2000) Testing joint attention, imitation, and play as infancy precursors to language and theory of mind. Cognit Dev 15(4):481–498
Conway CM, Christiansen MH (2001) Sequential learning in non-human primates. Trends Cogn Sci 5(12):539–546
Coudé G, Ferrari PF, Rodà F, Maranesi M, Borelli E, Veroni V, Fogassi L (2011) Neurons controlling voluntary vocalization in the macaque ventral premotor cortex. PLoS ONE 6(11):e26822
Crockford C, Herbinger I, Vigilant L, Boesch C (2004) Wild chimpanzees have group specific calls: A case for vocal learning? Ethology 110:221–243
Crockford C, Wittig RM, Mundry R, Zuberbuehler K (2012) Wild chimpanzees inform ignorant group members of danger. Curr Biol 22:142–146
Donald M (1991) Origins of the modern mind: three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition. Harvard UP, Cambridge MA
Douglas PH, Moscovice LR (2015) Pointing and pantomime in wild apes? Female bonobos use referential and iconic gestures to request genito-genital rubbing. Sci Rep 5:13999
Enard W, Przeworski M, Fisher SE, Lai CS, Wiebe V, Kitano T, Monaco AP, Pääbo S (2002) Molecular evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language. Nature 418(6900):869–872
Fedurek P, Machanda Z, Schel AM, Slocombe K (2013) Pant hoot chorusing and social bonds in male chimpanzees. Anim Behav 86:189–196
Ferrari PF, Gallese V, Rizzolatti G, Fogassi L (2003) Mirror neurons responding to the observation of ingestive and communicative mouth actions in the monkey ventral premotor cortex. Eur J Neurosci 17(8):1703–1714
Ferrari PF, Visalberghi E, Paukner A, Fogassi L, Ruggiero A, Suomi SJ (2006) Neonatal imitation in rhesus macaques. PLoS Biol 4(9):e302
Ferrari PF, Vanderwert RE, Paukner A, Bower S, Suomi SJ, Fox NA (2012) Distinct EEG amplitude suppression to facial gestures as evidence for a mirror mechanism in newborn monkeys. J Cogn Neurosci 24(5):1165–1172
Fridland E, Moore R (2014) Imitation reconsidered. Philos Psychol 28(6):856–880
Galef BG (2013) Imitation and local enhancement: detrimental effects of consensus definitions on analyses of social learning in animals. Behav Process 100:123–130
Gentilucci M, Corballis MC (2006) From manual gesture to speech: a gradual transition. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 30:949–960
Genty E, Zuberbühler K (2014) Spatial reference in a bonobo gesture. Curr Biol 24(14):1601–1605
Halina M, Rossano F, Tomasello M (2013) The ontogenetic ritualization of bonobo gestures. Anim Cogn 16(4):653–666
Hara E, Rivas MV, Ward JM, Okanoya K, Jarvis ED (2012) Convergent differential regulation of parvalbumin in the brains of vocal learners. PLoS ONE 7(1):e29457
Harmand S, Lewis JE, Feibel CS, Lepre CJ, Prat S, Lenoble A, Taylor N (2015) 3.3-million-year-old stone tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya. Nature 521(7552):310–315
Hauser MD, Yang C, Berwick RC, Tattersall I, Ryan MJ, Watumull J, Chomsky N, Lewontin RC (2014) The mystery of language evolution. Front Psychol 5:401
Hecht EE, Gutman DA, Preuss TM, Sanchez MM, Parr LA, Rilling JK (2012) Process versus product in social learning: comparative diffusion tensor imaging of neural systems for action execution–observation matching in macaques, chimpanzees, and humans. Cereb Cortex 1014–1024
Hecht EE, Murphy LE, Gutman DA, Votaw JR, Schuster DM, Preuss TM, Parr LA (2013) Differences in neural activation for object-directed grasping in chimpanzees and humans. J Neurosci 33(35):14117–14134
Hobaiter C, Byrne RW (2011) The gestural repertoire of the wild chimpanzee. Anim Cogn 14:745–767
Hobaiter C, Byrne RW (2014) The meanings of chimpanzee gestures. Curr Biol 24(14):1596–1600
Hobaiter C, Leavens DA, Byrne RW (2014) Deictic gesturing in wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)? Some possible cases. J Comp Psychol 128(1):82
Irvine E (2016) Method and evidence: gesture and iconicity in the evolution of language. Mind Lang 31(2):221–247
Johnson MH, Dziurawiec S, Ellis H, Morton J (1991) Newborns' preferential tracking of face-like stimuli and its subsequent decline. Cognition 40(1):1–19
Keysers C, Perrett DI (2004) Demystifying social cognition: a Hebbian perspective. Trends Cogn Sci 8(11):501–507
Krause J, Lalueza-Fox C, Orlando L, Enard W, Green RE, Burbano HA, Bertranpetit J (2007) The derived FOXP2 variant of modern humans was shared with Neandertals. Curr Biol 17(21):1908–1912
Kuhl PK, Meltzoff AN (1982) The bimodal perception of speech in infancy. Am Assoc Adv Sci 218
Leavens DA, Russell J, Hopkins WD (2005) Intentionality as measured in the persistence and elaboration of communication by chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Child Dev 76(1):291–306
Lewis D (1969) Convention: a philosophical study. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
Maestripieri D (2005) Gestural communication in three species of macaques (Macaca mulatta, M. nemestrina, M. arctoides): use of signals in relation to dominance and social context. Gesture 5(1–2):57–73
Matthews D, Behne T, Lieven E, Tomasello M (2012) Origins of the human pointing gesture: a training study. Dev Sci 15(6):817–829
Meltzoff AN, Moore MK (1983) Newborn infants imitate adult facial gestures. Child Dev 702–709
Mooney R (2014) Auditory—vocal mirroring in songbirds. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 369(1644):20130179
Moore R (2013a) Imitation and conventional communication. Biol Philos 28(3):481–500
Moore R (2013b) Social learning and teaching in chimpanzees. Biol Philos 28(6):879–901
Moore R (2014) Ape gestures: interpreting chimpanzee and bonobo minds. Curr Biol 24(14):R645–R647
Moore R (2016) Meaning and ostension in great ape gestural communication. Anim Cogn 19(1):223–231
Moore R (In press) Pedagogy and social learning in human development. In: Kiverstein (ed) The Routledge handbook of the social mind. London, Routledge
Moore R, Mueller B, Kaminski J, Tomasello M (2015a) Two-year-olds but not domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) understand communicative intentions without language, gestures, or gaze. Dev Sci 18(2):232–242
Moore R, Call J, Tomasello M (2015b) Production and comprehension of gestures between orang-utans (Pongo pygmaeus) in a referential communication game. PLoS ONE 10(6):e0129726
Nagy E, Peter M (2004) Homo imitans or homo provocans? Human imprinting model of neonatal imitation. Infant Behav Dev 27(1):54–63
Nelissen K, Borra E, Gerbella M, Rozzi S, Luppino G, Vanduffel W, Orban GA (2011) Action observation circuits in the macaque monkey cortex. J Neurosci 31(10):3743–3756
Nielsen M (2012) Imitation, pretend play and childhood: Essential elements in the evolution of human culture? J Comp Psychol 126:170–181
Oostenbroek J, Suddendorf T, Nielsen M, Redshaw J, Kennedy-Costantini S, Davis J, Clark S, Slaughter V (2016) Comprehensive longitudinal study challenges the existence of neonatal imitation in humans. Curr Biol 26(10):1334–1338
Pezzulo G, Baldassarre G, Butz MV, Castelfranchi C, Hoffmann J (2007) From actions to goals and vice versa: theoretical analysis and models of the ideomotor principle and tote. In: Butz M, Sigaud O, Pezzulo G, Baldassarre G (eds) Anticipatory behavior in adaptive learning systems: advances in anticipatory processing, LNAI 4520. Springer, NewYork
Pfenning AR, Hara E, Whitney O, Rivas MV, Wang R, Roulhac PL, Mountcastle J (2014) Convergent transcriptional specializations in the brains of humans and song-learning birds. Science 346(6215):1256846
Ploog D (2002) Is the neural basis of vocalisation different in non-human primates and homo sapiens? Brit Acad 106:121–135
Richerson P, Boyd R (2005) Not by genes alone: how culture transformed human evolution. Chicago UP, Chicago, IL
Rizzolatti G (2005) The mirror neuron system and its function in humans. Anat Embryol 210(5–6):419–421
Rizzolatti G, Fabbri-Destro M (2010) Mirror neurons: from discovery to autism. Exp Brain Res 200(3–4):223–237
Rizzolatti G, Sinigaglia C (2010) The functional role of the parieto-frontal mirror circuit: interpretations and misinterpretations. Nat Rev Neurosci 11(4):264–274
Roberts AI, Vick SJ, Buchanan-Smith HM (2012) Usage and comprehension of manual gestures in wild chimpanzees. Anim Behav 84(2):459–470
Roberts AI, Vick SJ, Buchanan-Smith HM (2013) Communicative intentions in wild chimpanzees: persistence and elaboration in gestural signalling. Anim Cogn 16(2):187–196
Roberts AI, Vick SJ, Roberts SGB, Menzel CR (2014) Chimpanzees modify intentional gestures to coordinate a search for hidden food. Nat Commun 5(3088)
Rochat MJ, Caruana F, Jezzini A, Intskirveli I, Grammont F, Gallese V, Umiltà MA (2010) Responses of mirror neurons in area F5 to hand and tool grasping observation. Exp Brain Res 204(4):605–616
Schel AM, Townsend SW, Machanda Z, Zuberbühler K, Slocombe KE (2013) Chimpanzee alarm call production meets key criteria for intentionality. PLoS ONE 8(10):e76674
Schick K, Toth N (1993) Making silent stones speak: human evolution and the dawn of technology. Simon and Schuster, New York, NY
Simpson EA, Murray L, Paukner A, Ferrari PF (2014) The mirror neuron system as revealed through neonatal imitation: presence from birth, predictive power and evidence of plasticity. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 369(1644):20130289
Slocombe KE, Zuberbühler K (2007) Chimpanzees modify recruitment screams as a function of audience composition. PNAS 104(43):17228–17233
Slocombe K, Kaller T, Turman L, Townsend S, Papworth S, Zuberbuehler K (2010) Production of food-associated calls in wild male chimpanzees is dependent on the composition of the audience. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 64(12):1959–1966
Tennie C, Call J, Tomasello M (2006) Push or pull: emulation versus imitation in great apes and human children. Ethology 112:1159–1169
Tennie C, Call J, Tomasello M (2009) Ratcheting up the ratchet: on the evolution of cumulative culture. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 364(1528):2405–2415
Tennie C, Call J, Tomasello M (2012) Untrained chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) fail to imitate novel actions. PLoS ONE 7:e41548
Tomasello M (1994) The question of chimpanzee culture. In: Wrangham R, McGrew W, de Waal F, Heltne P (eds) Chimpanzee cultures. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, pp 301–317
Tomasello M (1999) The cultural origins of human cognition. Harvard UP, London
Tomasello M (2008) Origins of human communication. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
Tramacere A, Ferrari PF (2016) Faces in the mirror, from the neuroscience of mimicry to the emergence of mentalizing. J Anthropol Sci 94:1–14
Tramacere A, Ferrari PF, Iriki A, (2015) Epigenetic regulation of mirror neurons development and related evolutionary hypothesis. In: Ferrari PF, Rizzolatti G (eds) New Frontiers in Mirror Neurons Research OUP, USA
Tramacere A, Pievani T, Ferrari PF (in press) Mirror neurons in the tree of life, mosaic evolution, plasticity and exaptation of sensorimotor matching responses. Biol Rev
Vanderwert RE, Simpson EA, Paukner A, Suomi SJ, Fox NA, Ferrari PF (2015) Early social experience affects neural activity to affiliative facial gestures in newborn nonhuman primates. Dev Neurosci 37(3):243–252
Vargha-Khadem F, Watkins K, Alcock K, Fletcher P, Passingham R (1995) Praxic and nonverbal cognitive deficits in a large family with a genetically transmitted speech and language disorder. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 92:930–933
Veà J, Sabater-Pi J (1998) Spontaneous pointing behaviour in the wild pygmy chimpanzee (Pan paniscus). Folia Primatol 69(5):289–290
Watson SK, Townsend SW, Schel AM, Wilke C, Wallace EK, Cheng L, West V, Slocombe KE (2015) Vocal learning in the functionally referential food grunts of chimpanzees. Curr Biol 25(4):495–499
Whiten A (2011) The scope of culture in chimpanzees, humans and ancestral apes. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 366(1567):997–1007
Whiten A, Ham R (1992) On the nature and evolution of imitation in the animal kingdom: reappraisal of a century of research. Adv Stud Behav 21:239–283
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.
Conflicts of interest
The authors declare they have no conflicts of interest.
About this article
Cite this article
Tramacere, A., Moore, R. Reconsidering the Role of Manual Imitation in Language Evolution. Topoi 37, 319–328 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-016-9440-x
- Language evolution
- Mirror neuron system
- Social learning
- Primate communication