The gesture ‘Touch’: does meaning-making develop in chimpanzees’ use of a very flexible gesture?

Kim A. Bard, Vanessa Maguire-herring, Masaki Tomonaga, Tetsuro Matsuzawa

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In this bottom-up study of gesture, we focused on the details of a single gesture, Touch. We compared characteristics of use by three young chimpanzees with those of 11 adults, their interactive partners, housed in a semi-natural social group at the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute (KUPRI) in Japan. Five hundred eighty-one observations of the gesture Touch were collected across a four-year time span. This single gesture had 36 different forms, was directed to 70 different target locations on the body of social partners, and occurred in 26 different contexts. Significant differences were found between infant and adult initiators in the form, target locations, and contexts of the gesture Touch. There was a wide diversity in form–location patterns within each context, and there were no form–location patterns specific to particular contexts. Thus, we demonstrate that this gesture exhibits flexibility in form and flexibility in use. The results from this study illustrate the importance of contextualized meaning in understanding flexibility in the gesture use of great apes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)535-550
Number of pages16
JournalAnimal Cognition
Issue number4
Early online date24 Oct 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2019


  • great apes
  • infants
  • development
  • non-verbal communication


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