Communicating With Primates Using Sign Language


Communication in primates is only possible when there is the presence of a vocal tract to produce sound. The first primates (an australopithecine) never had a fully developed vocal tract compared to the latter homo species. It is out of the incapacity of primates to produce a sound that necessitated the use of sign language for communication (Dunbar, 2004). There have been different opinions as to which species first could communicate through sign language but this paper will focus on the importance and the different facets of sign language that make it worth studying.

Communication between Humans and other Primates

Some studies done in Ivory Coast sought to find out whether primates have a secret code of communication in the forests and it is evident that primates use sign language to notify other animals of predators and even wade off minor predators. Scientists heavily rely on sign language to communicate with chimpanzees and other primates in training them and by listening to animals in the wild (Burling, 1999). The first approach was necessitated by human’s burning desire to communicate with animals probably perpetuated during childhood when cartoons portrayed animal characters speaking to humans (Ruhlen, 1996).

Sign Language and Human Beings

There is evidence of humans also using sign language to first communicate with their parents. This occurs especially during childhood when the small baby wants something before they develop the ability to speak (Burling, 1999). Sign language becomes an important element for humans not only to communicate with animals but also among themselves. This is especially evident by the use of sign language among deaf people as the most effective way of communication. Reliance on sign language still goes on in civilized society. For instance, this language has been constantly used by police in implementing traffic controls or even at airports to signal pilots.


Scientists have come to agree that the human language used today can trace its origin to gestures that were used for simple communication in the past. There have been pieces of evidence advanced to support this theory, among them being that gesture language and vocal language all depend upon similar neural centers. Sometimes, primates use gestures that are comparable to those used by people. For instance, some apes use a hand stretch when begging for something, which compares to a man’s way of begging (Burling, 1999).

Importance of Sign Language

The study of sign language becomes important in today’s society of different languages. Humans especially use sign language when there is a communication barrier. This can also be evidenced in a trade that was going on in the 19th century where people from different origins would exchange goods using sign languages. The study of sign languages also seeks to shed some light on the development of human language today (Dunbar, 2004).

It is however interesting to note that humans can’t be able to effectively communicate without the use of signs as can be conveyed during moments of highly charged emotions. The sharing of some common sign language between humans and other primates doesn’t go without mention as this only goes on to strengthen the fact that we share a common origin with other primates.


Sign language is the root of all modern forms of language communication that humans use today. Though earlier arguments were inclined to stress the fact that primates’ communication in sign language was a sign of lack of intelligence, this fact was disputed when chimpanzees were able to perform tasks in other areas that depicted or showed a great sense of intelligence. Sign language, therefore, stands out as a superior means of communication among primates because they are unable to vocalize language (Dunbar, 2004).


Burling, R. (1999). The origins of language: What nonhuman primates can tell us. New York: SAR Press.

Dunbar, R. (2004). Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language. London: Faber and Faber.

Ruhlen, M. (1996). The origin of language: tracing the evolution of the mother tongue. New York: Wiley.