Most primates spend their lives in complex, tightly woven societies and need to frequently communicate with each other.  They communicate with smells, sounds, visual messages, and touching.  Non-human primates emphasize the use of body language.  Human communication is far more focused on the use of oral sounds.  Our speech is radically different from the hoots, howls, whistles, barks, slaps on the ground, and other sounds used by non-human primates to communicate.  Our languages are complex symbolic systems.  That is to say, our words are combinations of sounds to which we arbitrarily assign a specific meaning.  Like all symbols, the meaning of words cannot be discerned by listening to the sounds.  They must be explained.  This is very different from a universally understood cry out from pain or fear.

3 pictures of people talking face to face, reading, and talking on a telephone
Human communication using a system of symbols for oral and written language

Human language also has the characteristics of being both open and discrete.  Openness refers to the ability to communicate about totally new things and ideas.  In contrast, other primates almost exclusively communicate their present emotional mood and intentions.  They are focused on the here and now.  Discreteness refers to spoken words being individually distinct from others in the same phrase or sentence--they don't blend together.  The oral sounds of some apes and monkeys are somewhat discrete at times as well.  Unlike us, however, their communication does not involve displacement.  That is, they apparently do not "talk" about things and events that are not here and now.  People discuss such things as what the world was like two centuries ago.  There is no evidence that non-human primates do this.

Can non-human primates learn and use human languages?  Do they have the mental ability to comprehend a symbolic communication system and to use it creatively?  Research with chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas to answer these questions has been ongoing since the 1960's.  It is now clear that at least the African apes can learn and use a simplified version of the American Sign Language for the Deaf (ASL).  However, it is not universally agreed that they can do so in an innovative way like adult humans.  One of the stars in this research has been a male bonobo named Kanzi.  Listen to the video and audio slide show linked below and make up your own mind about how well he uses language.

click this icon in order to see the following video  The (Monkey) Business of Recognizing Words--Baboon ability to recognize
       written English words.  This link takes you to an external website.
       (length = 3 mins, 57 secs.) 
click this icon in order to see the following video  How Animals Learn Language--TIME magazine science writer Jeffrey Kluger
       visits the Great Ape Trust to meet Kanzi.
       This link takes you to an external website.  (length = 3 mins, 14 secs.) 
click this icon in order to see the following video  Kanzi the Bonobo--primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh talks about Kanzi's
       ability to learn and use human language
This link takes you to a 5 part audio slide show at an external website.
       (total length of the 5 parts = 6 mins, 15 secs.) 

Non-Human Primate Communication

photo of a chimpanzee with an outstretched hand  
Chimpanzee begging gesture 
and facial expression

Odors, vocalizations, gestures, and facial expressions are used by non-human primates to inform others of their psychological state and present concerns, which is an important clue to what they are likely to do next.  In the picture on the left, the outstretched hand and pleading facial expression directed toward another group member are obvious indications of this chimpanzee's appeal for sharing.  It also probably reflects and reinforces his or her lower position on the dominance hierarchy within the community.

Primatologists have observed that some communication patterns are commonly used by many primate species.  These are discussed below.

Prosimians have excellent olfactory click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced sensing abilities.  It is not surprising, therefore, that they usually use body odors to communicate.  Adult male ring-tailed lemurs regularly mark their woodland territories with chemicals produced by scent glands in their wrists.  This is similar to dogs, wolves, and cats marking their territories with urine.  In both cases, the scent is recognized as a personal signature.  Tamarins and marmosets also use scented urine to mark the gum trees that are important food sources in their territories.  In all of these species, scent marking is a way of claiming territory and warning off intruders.

Using scent to communicate is not unique to prosimians.  All primates, including humans, do so to some extent.  People do not mark territory with scent or battle each other with it, but we do produce odors that may attract or repulse others.  Think about the effect you might have on your friends if you did not bathe or shower for several days.  Humans have learned to cover up body odors with perfumes and other products.  Our cultures tell us that some of these odors are attractive.  However, our bodies also produce pheromones, which are chemicals that give off powerful, often subliminal, odors that have effects on the physiology and behavior of others in our species whether they are aware of it or not.  Very importantly, there are different male and female pheromones that play a part in sexual attraction and ovulation regulation.  It is likely that all primates produce such pheromones.

click this icon in order to see the following video  Sweaty T-Shirts and Human Mate Choice--effect of subtle chemical signals, or pheromones
This link takes you to a video at an external website.  To return here, you must click the "back"
        button on your browser program.              (length = 3 mins, 11 secs) 

photo of a young woman screaming in anger   photo of an adult male mandrill threatening another by holding his mouth wide open and showing his teeth

         Agonistic displays by a
         human and a male mandrill

Most primate species, including humans, use threatening gestures, stares, and poses to intimidate others.  Primatologists refer to this particular use of body language as agonistic displays click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  Among non-human primates, they are usually sufficient to prevent physical fighting.  In fact, physically violent encounters are rare among them.  The dominant male in a monkey or ape community can usually prevent major conflicts and keep order by the use of often subtle agonistic displays.  For instance, male baboons flash their eyelids when they are angry and want to intimidate others.  If this isn't sufficient in its effect, they open their mouths widely in a manner that looks like human yawning.  This is usually the last warning before attacking.  Since the marmosets and tamarins cannot significantly change their facial expressions, their agonistic displays are different.  Adult males chirp repeatedly and turn around to show their genitals from behind.  This is the ultimate threat for them.

Most primate species communicate affection and reduce group tension by what are known as affiliative behaviors.  These include calmly sitting close to each other, touching, and mutually grooming.  The latter is referred to as allogrooming click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced in contrast to self or autogrooming click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  Allogrooming is a powerful tool for communication.  It is used by both monkeys and apes to reinforce male-female mate bonds as well as same sex friendship bonds.  Chimpanzees often have ecstatic bouts of allogrooming that go on for hours when an old acquaintance rejoins the community.  They also do it to calm emotions following wild, aggressive outbursts by angry adult males.  Most members of the community also seem to very much enjoy grooming infants and may compete for the opportunity.

Allogrooming usually has measureable physiological effects on both the individual being groomed and the one doing the grooming.  It can cause the release of endorphins into the blood.  These are hormones that have opiate-like effects on the body--they reduce the sensation of pain and cause a pleasant emotional state.

3 photos of allogrooming primates--chimpanzees, douc langurs, and crab-eater macaques
Allogrooming chimpanzees, douc langurs, and crab-eater macaques

It is clear that allogrooming results in both social and psychological benefits for non-human primates.  It often serves much the same purposes for humans, whether it be in the private setting of a family at home, where a parent might brush a child's hair, or in a public barbershop or beauty salon.  The experience of having someone run their fingers through your hair and massage your head in the process is usually physically pleasurable, and it generally provides a period of time removed from work or school concerns when relaxed, casual conversation occurs.

Among some species of primates, including humans, the urge to allogroom is so strong as to result in grooming animals of other species.  Among non-human primates, inter-species allogrooming sometimes occurs when they are in captivity and deprived of the opportunity to groom their own kind.  They are even known to groom people.  However, it does not seem to be a pattern of wild non-human primates.

photo of a monkey holding and grooming a puppy photo of a human girl holding and petting a puppy

 A macaque and a human enjoy
 holding and grooming puppies
 (The dogs also enjoy it)

Petting a willing, appreciative dog has been shown in experiments to reduce the blood pressure of humans.  This surprising psychological effect potentially has medical implications.

drawing of a video camera  Clever Monkeys--monkey intelligence and communication (BBC Natural World)
This link takes you to an external website.  Watch all 6 parts.  To return here,you
        must click         the "back" button on your browser program.
length = 48 mins. 58 secs.) 


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