Our Grooming Cousins: Providing the Link to Declarative Signalling?

Simone Pika


Around the globe, human speech is frequently accompanied by movements of the arms and hands that are termed gestures. Recently the study of gestures has received tremendous research attention and provided evidence that gestures are used functionally in ways very similar to speech, that is symbolically, referentially, and based on intersubjectively learned and shared social conventions. Our closest living relatives, the great apes also use gestures in their natural communication. These gestures resemble those of pre-linguistic human children in some important ways, but they also share two important components that make them crucially different from human deictic and symbolic gestures: They are most frequently used in dyadic interactions and seem to be performed exclusively for imperative purposes to request actions from others. Pre-linguistic human children however also use gestures declaratively to direct the attention of others to an outside object or event, simply to share interest in it or comment on it; an ability which might have triggered the onset of speech. Declarative signalling is probably linked with an increased level of intersubjectivity that enables humans to understand other people as intentional agents with whom they may share experience. Focusing on its evolutionary origins, declarative signalling might have been derived from the need to create a new medium for social bonding triggered by an increase of group size, superseding grooming as a servicing tool for social relationships.


communication; gestures; chimpanzees; cognition

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Studies in Communication Sciences | ISSN: 1424-4896