Bonobos May Say "No" With a Shake of the Head

Photo via Globo

The latest research on bonobos is hinting that, along with being so genetically similar to primates, we may share some social gestures. Observed by researchers in the past, new footage of bonobo behavior has captured non-verbal communication that seems strangely human--a mother shaking her head disapprovingly at her young child who is playing with its food. Scientists think that the bonobos' gestures may be related to the ones we use every day. According to the BBC, researchers say that the head shaking observed in bonobos appears to correspond with disapproval--a way to prevent others from acting out of line. Christel Schneider, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, describes a situation witness between a mother bonobo and her child:

Ulindi, tried to stop her infant, Luiza, from playing with a piece of leek. Since Luiza took no notice despite repeated attempts to stop her, Ulindi finally shakes her head towards the infant

Researchers say that some primates, like bonobos and chimpanzees, may communicate with one another through a complex language of head movements, though still very little is understood what each might mean. The head shaking caught on film, however, seems to indicate 'no' in situations of conflict negotiation.

In the videos, four different bonobos were seen shaking their heads disapprovingly on 13 separate occasions. These communicative gestures may have helped primates develop their social structure and complex hierarchal systems, say researchers. But because similar non-verbal language serve an important social function in the daily lives of we humans, scientists suspect it may predate us.

Christel Schneider, to the BBC:

If future research can confirm the use of preventive head-shaking in our closest living relatives, the bonobos and chimpanzees, then this would raise the question of whether these gestures reflect a primitive precursor of the human 'no' head-shake.

Such research just goes to show that for all the difference we like to presume there is between us and our primate cousins, we may more in common after all. Perhaps, since we might be speaking the same non-verbal language, it might seem more important to protect threatened primate species throughout the world--particularly now that we know they can guilt us with a slow, shake of the head. You know, the kind that says "I'm not angry, I'm just disappointed."

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Tags: Animals | Evolution | Germany

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