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Young chimpanzees and humans learn to communicate in the same way

A fascinating breakthrough in animal psychology has revealed that young chimpanzees combine various gestures, vocalizations, and facial expressions in a manner reminiscent of the communication development observed in human infants

This research is a product of diligent work carried out by psychologists at Durham University, who ventured deep into understanding the dynamics of chimpanzee communication.

During their investigation, the research team discovered that young chimps have a unique ability to combine different communication signals, an evolutionary trick that possibly enhances their ability to convey messages across different situations such as play and conflict. Intriguingly, they observed that this talent matures as the chimps transition from infancy to adolescence.

Why this study is important

Let’s delve into the specifics. The combined signals that these young primates utilize include a multitude of expressions and behaviors. For instance, they were seen combining playful open-mouth faces with laughter, or physically touching another chimp while whimpering, and even baring their teeth paired with squeaks.

Understanding these “multimodal” forms of communication has substantial implications for human linguistics and behavioral studies. It sheds significant light on the evolutionary path of communication in humans and our closest ape relatives, contributing to our understanding of the emergence of our own language skills.

The study, a collaboration between Durham University and the University of Portsmouth, gained recognition through its publication in the journal Animal Behaviour.. The research took place at the Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage Trust sanctuary in northern Zambia, where 28 semi-wild chimpanzees, aged one to 11 years, were observed.

What the research team learned

Contrary to previous studies that focused on isolated forms of communication signals, this research was unique as it examined how chimpanzees combined these signals as they matured and in different contexts. The team found that chimpanzees of all ages consistently used standalone communication signals such as grunting, arm movements, or facial expressions in various situations.

However, it was interesting to note that as the chimpanzees aged, they were more likely to merge different communication signals. This practice was particularly evident during encounters of aggression or play, two scenarios where clear communication is paramount to avoid undesirable consequences. The older adolescent chimpanzees demonstrated a higher tendency to utilize a mix of signals instead of singular gestures or expressions, especially in aggressive contexts.

“When we think about human language, we know that it is a combination of different types of communication such as speech, facial expressions, and gestures. The way we communicate likely has deep evolutionary roots that are shared with some of our closest living relatives such as apes. Our study provides evidence that the way chimpanzees communicate with increased complexity as they get older is consistent with the development of communication we see in human infants,” said lead author Emma Doherty.

Insights into human evolution

The research team suggests that the development of this multi-layered mode of communication among young chimpanzees could offer valuable insights into our own evolution. However, they added that further studies are needed to observe multimodal signals in wild primates to understand better how different environments impact communication development.

Furthermore, they proposed that studying multimodal communication, as opposed to observing individual signals in isolation, could provide more robust evidence of how communication evolves in apes, and by extension, in humans.

“A lot of the focus of research so far into communication, both in humans and other animals, looks at individual communication signals independently, but we know humans combine these signals all the time from early infancy. As a close relative of humans, apes give us a snapshot into how these signals could have evolved into multimodal communications, ultimately culminating in human language,” said study co-author Dr Zanna Clay.

Learning more about ourselves by observing chimpanzees

These discoveries underscore the similarities between human communication and our nearest animal relatives. By studying the development of young chimpanzees’ communication and their ability to combine signals, the researchers have not only broadened our understanding of primate communication but have also brought us a step closer to unravelling the complexities of our own language evolution.

As we continue to push the boundaries of our knowledge, research like this reinforces our connection with the animal kingdom and reminds us of the shared evolutionary heritage we possess. Who knows, in the near future, we may even uncover more ways in which our forms of communication mirror those of the animal kingdom. 

After all, understanding the evolution of communication in animals may pave the way for more profound insights into human language development and the intriguing interplay of nature and nurture.

In essence, by peering into the communication patterns of our closest living relatives, we may just be getting a glimpse of our own ancient past and the evolutionary milestones that have shaped the complexity and diversity of human communication. 

As we move forward, further exploration of multimodal communication in primates could offer more definitive answers and add exciting chapters to our understanding of the story of human evolution.

This noteworthy research was made possible through funding from various entities, including a Durham University Doctoral Scholarship, the British Association of Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology, and the Lucie Burgers Foundation for Comparative Behavioural Research.

More about the similarities between humans and chimpanzees 

Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom, and we share many biological and behavioral similarities with them, given our shared ancestry.

Genetic similarity

Chimpanzees and humans share nearly 99% of their DNA. This genetic similarity is one of the primary reasons why scientists study chimpanzees to understand human biology and evolution better.

Social behavior 

Like humans, chimpanzees are highly social animals. They live in large communities and exhibit complex social behaviors such as cooperation, competition, alliance formation, and even aggression. They also demonstrate empathy and altruism, engaging in behavior such as grooming each other and sharing food.


As highlighted in the previous article, chimpanzees use a wide range of gestures, facial expressions, and vocalizations to communicate, much like humans. They use these signals in combination, showing that they have multimodal communication capabilities that could be the precursors to human language.

Tool use and problem-solving

Chimpanzees are among the few animal species known to use tools. They’ve been observed using sticks to fish for termites, stones to crack open nuts, and leaves as sponges to absorb drinking water. This tool use displays their problem-solving abilities and cognitive sophistication.

Emotion and Intelligence 

Chimpanzees exhibit a wide range of emotions, including joy, sadness, fear, and anger, similar to human emotions. They’re also very intelligent, capable of learning sign language, playing computer games, and even recognizing themselves in mirrors, a sign of self-awareness.


While not their primary mode of locomotion, chimpanzees can walk on two legs (bipedalism), especially when carrying food or tools, suggesting that our common ancestor may have also been capable of bipedal locomotion.

Cultural transmission 

Chimpanzees also show evidence of culture, in that different groups of chimpanzees have different behaviors and traditions, such as unique ways of grooming or using tools, which they pass down through generations.

These similarities provide a window into our own evolutionary past, offering crucial insights into human biology, behavior, culture, and the roots of our language. Understanding our shared traits with chimpanzees, as well as appreciating the differences, helps us understand our place in the natural world.


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