Parents often describe young children as little monkeys, but now scientists have confirmed that toddlers are “just tiny apes” sharing 96 per cent of the same gestures.
Researchers at the University of St Andrews in Scotland have discovered that before children learn how to talk, they use a range of hand and body movements to communicate in the same way as chimpanzees and gorillas.
The study, published in Animal Cognition, found children aged one and two-years-old using 52 gestures including head shaking, poking, stomping, hitting themselves and throwing objects.
And they discovered that 50 of those movements are also shared with apes, suggesting they may have been used for millions of years in our evolutionary past – long before they were linked to words and language.
Senior author Dr Catherine Hobaiter, from the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at St Andrews, said: “Wild chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans all use gestures to communicate their day-to-day requests, but until now there was always one ape missing from the picture – us.
“We used exactly the same approach to study young chimpanzees and children, which makes sense – children are just tiny apes.”
To find common gestures, chimpanzees were observed in their habitat, in the Budongo Forest in Uganda, while young children were observed in their nursery and home environments interacting with their peers and family, in Germany and Uganda.
Wild great apes are known to use more than 80 different gestures and the scientists have recently completed a “great ape dictionary” to record what each means.
There are now thought to be specific gestures for warning about predators, fires or snakes as well as more intimate movements, such as beckoning, if they want other apes to come closer.
But scientists were surprised by just how many gestures the children had in common with apes.
Like young apes, children used gestures to signal they wanted to be followed, picked up and played with, or to to gain attention, invite people to come closer or back off.
Dr Hobaiter said: “We thought that we might find a few of these gestures – reaching out your palm to ask for something or sticking your hand up in the air – but we were amazed to see so many of the ‘ape’ gestures used by the children.”
However, they also found important differences. For example young children used pointing gestures far more than the young apes, and waving the hand to say hello or goodbye was found to be uniquely human.
First author Dr Verena Kersken, from the University of Göttingen, said: “Since chimpanzees and humans shared a common ancestor around 5-6 million years ago, we wanted to know whether our evolutionary history of communication is also reflected in human development.
“While humans developed language, it appears that we still have access to this shared ancient gestural heritage – and gestures continue to play an important role before language is fully developed.”