Most non-human primates have a system of communication. To us it only sounds like, well, sounds, but to others in their species, they know exactly what they are saying; or feeling. The sounds chimpanzees make or when a baboon barks are being made to tell others in the group what they are feeling. They have sounds for happy, sad, angry, excited, but that is the extent to their “language,” to help others understand what they are feeling. I would say that was the only thing they can communicate, but we have to remember that most small non-human primates have predators, and as such, need to communicate extensively to keep safe. For example vervent monkeys (image below), they use different vocalizations to warn of different predators. The vocalizations for birds or pray, snakes, or leopards are different. With the snake-warning call they look at the nearby ground, with the birds of pray-warning call they look towards the sky, and with the leopard-warning call they quickly climb the trees. To those who hear them once, they all seem the same, but with attentive ears and hearing them call over and over again, it becomes clear which ones mean which predator. Other non-human primates that have this system include (images below) cottontop tamarins, Goeldi's monkeys, red colobus, and gibbons (there are also birds and non-primate mammals who use specific predator calls).
In 1967 another chimpanzee, named Sara was “taught to recognize plastic chips as symbols for various objects.” What made this interesting is the chips did not look like the object she would ask for. For example, the chip for apple was not round or red. This was exciting because it showed that she could understand symbols for different objects. Something else happened in the late 1970's that was just as exciting. If you remember in my previous paragraph that non-human apes did not speak of past or future events or refer to those who were not present; but that all changed with a 2yo male orangutan named Chantek. He built up his sign language vocabulary to 140 signs, “which he sometimes used to refer to objects and people not present.” He would also combine signs to make more clear what he was speaking of, he was the first to do this, but not the last. In the early 1970's a gorilla was born, a gorilla the world now knows as Koko. This magnificent gorilla does not have a vocabulary of 140, or 500, not even 1000; her vocabulary is more than 1000, and to add to that, she can also understand more than 2000 words spoken in English. As I said, just like Chantek, she has made very clever signs for things she wants. For example the sign for “scratch” and “comb,” she was asking for a brush (video below), or with the sign for “eye” and “hat” she means “mask.”
Please feel free to comment on what you thought of the blog, or other physical anthropological subjects you would like me to cover.