Monkey Memo

April 30, 2008


Creative Commons License photo credit: belgianchocolate

One of the traits that scientists have identified in order for a species to be considered “human” is the ability to communicate in a complex fashion.

The adjective “complex” was added after people realized that a plain and simple “ability to communicate” would not suffice. After all, there are many other animals that communicate.

Primatologists, people who make a career studying our close non-human relatives, like chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, have observed that these animals too are capable of communicating with each other. Chimpanzees may well be the most intelligent communicators in the animal world, although Flipper may have something to say about this as well.

Here is where it gets even more interesting: observations of primates in general and apes in particular have shown that these animals are capable not only of communicating with each other, but that some also possess what is called Machiavellian intelligence.

Orangutan at St. Paul Zoo

Creative Commons License photo credit: jimbowen0306

In plain English: not only do some primates communicate with each other, they also know how to deceive one another.

Better still: not only do they lie to each other, the individuals being lied to know it. Conversely, chimps also express kindness and care for less fortunate members of the troop.

Aside from making observations, scientists are now also resorting to advanced MRI techniques to probe the communication abilities of non-human primates further. In a recent article scientists published their findings that macaque monkeys had the ability to recognize the vocalizations that were made by fellow macaques. Moreover, they also seem to be able to identify who among them made these sounds.

This leads to an interesting paragraph in the news report (note the statement made in the last sentence):

Silverback Lowland Gorilla

Creative Commons License photo credit: macinate

“The discovery of a voice area in the monkey brain also opens a window into human verbal communication and brain function. Many people doubt that there is much to be learned from other animals about human verbal communication and language. Contrasting this, these findings provide direct parallels between how the brains of humans and non-human animals process communication signals. This study strongly argues that voice areas were evolutionarily conserved in primates, challenging the notion that higher-level verbal communication can only be achieved by the human brain.”

While this should not make us fear of being overtaken by our primate cousins any time soon, these insights do convey once more how close we are, not only in genetic makeup, but also in cognitive abilities.

Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

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