Context-sensitive adjustment of pointing in great apes

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Great apes are able to request objects from humans by pointing. It is unclear, however, whether this is an associated response to a certain set of cues (e.g. the presence and attention of a human addressee) or a communicative signal which can be adjusted to relevant aspects of the spatial and social context. In three experiments, we tested captive great apes’ flexible use of pointing gestures. We manipulated the communicative context so that the default pointing response of apes would have indicated an undesired object, either due to 1) the spatial arrangements of the target objects, 2) the perspective of the addressee or 3) the knowledge of the addressee about the target objects’ location. The results of the three experiments indicate that great apes can successfully adjust their pointing to the spatial configuration of the referent environment such as distance and location of food. However, we found no evidence that they take the perspective or the knowledge of the addressee into account when doing so. This implies that pointing in great apes is a context-sensitive, but maybe less versatile, communicative signal compared to human pointing.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1048
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - 01.12.2020
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013)/ERC Grant 609819 (SOMICS). Manuel Bohn was supported by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 749229. The authors declare no conflict of interests. We thank Eszter Endrődi, Hanna Petschauer and Zoli Téglás for their help.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020, The Author(s).