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Chimpanzees have a much more complex language than we thought

Chimpanzees’ ability to combine vocalizations into larger meaningful structures may hold the key to understanding the evolutionary origins of human language. 

Researchers from the University of Zurich (UZH) conducted experiments with wild chimpanzees in Uganda, revealing that these primates, much like humans, can communicate by combining individual vocalizations into larger compositional phrases.

Understanding how human language evolved has long been a topic of scientific inquiry. A key aspect of this evolution is the ability to combine words into larger compositional phrases, where the meaning of the whole is related to the meaning of its parts. 

Although the origins of this ability remain unclear, chimpanzees, our closest-living relatives, may offer valuable insights.

Chimpanzees are known to produce a variety of vocalizations to manage their social and ecological lives, and under certain circumstances, combine these calls into larger sequences. 

UZH researchers, led by postdoctoral student Maël Leroux, aimed to understand whether these combinations are comprehensible to other chimpanzees.

Leroux explains, “Chimpanzees produce ‘alarm-huus’ when surprised and ‘waa-barks’ when potentially recruiting conspecifics during aggression or hunting. Our behavioral observations suggest that chimpanzees combine these calls when exposed to a threat where recruiting group members is advantageous, such as when encountering a snake, but until now experimental verification has been missing.”

The researchers presented model snakes to the chimpanzees and were able to elicit the call combination. The chimpanzees reacted more strongly to playbacks of the combined calls than to either the “alarm-huu” or “waa-bark” alone. 

UZH professor Simon Townsend, the study’s last author, believes that this indicates that the listening chimpanzees are indeed combining the meaning of the individual calls.

The findings have significant implications for our understanding of the evolutionary roots of language’s compositional nature. Townsend points out that since humans and chimpanzees last shared a common ancestor around 6 million years ago, the capacity to combine meaningful vocalizations could be at least that old, if not older.

Leroux adds that these data offer “an intriguing glimpse into the evolutionary emergence of language.” The research suggests that compositionality may have originated before the appearance of language itself. 

To confirm these findings, further observational and experimental work, ideally involving other great ape species, will be crucial. The research is published in the journal Nature Communications.

More about the cognitive abilities of chimpanzees

Chimpanzees are known for their remarkable cognitive abilities, which set them apart from other non-human primates. These abilities have been extensively studied, and they continue to provide insights into the evolutionary origins of human cognition. Some key cognitive abilities of chimpanzees include:

Problem-solving and tool use

Chimpanzees are capable of using tools to solve complex problems. They have been observed using sticks to extract termites from mounds, using leaves as sponges to absorb water, and even creating spears to hunt smaller primates. Their ability to use and modify tools highlights their advanced cognitive skills.


Chimpanzees have impressive memories, particularly when it comes to spatial awareness and recalling the locations of various resources such as food and water sources. They can also remember the faces and social dynamics of group members, which is vital for navigating their complex social lives.

Social cognition

Chimpanzees live in large social groups with intricate hierarchies, requiring advanced social cognition skills. They can recognize and remember relationships between group members, understand the intentions of others, and use this knowledge to their advantage. They are also capable of deception, empathy, and cooperation, further demonstrating their social intelligence.

Imitation and learning

Chimpanzees are capable of learning by observing and imitating the actions of others. This ability to learn from others is crucial for the transmission of knowledge and skills within a group, allowing them to adapt to changing environments and develop complex cultural behaviors.

Numerical and quantitative abilities

Chimpanzees can understand numerical concepts and perform basic arithmetic tasks. They have been shown to match quantities, compare numerical values, and even remember the correct sequence of numbers in some experiments.


As mentioned in the previous response, chimpanzees are capable of producing and understanding a variety of vocalizations and gestures. They can use these to communicate information about their environment, emotions, and intentions to other members of their group.


Chimpanzees exhibit self-awareness, as demonstrated by their ability to recognize themselves in mirrors. This level of self-recognition is indicative of a complex understanding of their own identity and mental states.

These cognitive abilities highlight the intelligence of chimpanzees and provide a basis for understanding the evolutionary development of human cognition. Studying these abilities not only helps us appreciate the complexity of these fascinating animals but also sheds light on the origins of our own cognitive skills.


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