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Savage-Rumbaugh / Oral

Lessons of bonobo apes: language and culture

E. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Department of Biology & Language Research Center Georgia State University

     We are so closely related to the apes that it reasonable to expect of them to be competent in ways similar to our own. Over the past 25 years, their impressive skills for learning to comprehend printed word-lexigrams' referential meanings, for learning to use lexigrams in social contexts so as to communicate content that otherwise could not be exchanged, and even for thinking and problem-solving through symbols have been documented. In the last 10 years, their remarkable ability to comprehend human speech has been discovered. Their comprehension of speech appears to require that they be raised from birth forward, for the next 3 years or so, in a manner similar to that used for the human child. If they hear speech and see lexigrams used to explain, in simple terms, what has happened, what is happening now, what an item of interest to them is and what it does, and what is going to happen near term, they come to comprehend speech as otherwise they do not.
     Recently it has become increasingly clear that our bonobo (Pan paniscus) subjects are trying to communicate by "saying" things * vocally. Consequently, we are recording and studying the communication dimensions of selected vocalizations of theirs.
     Even now we are building with them a human-bonobo culture, one in which each has a life to build and social-communicative networks to cultivate.
     Through this research, we intend to achieve insights as to what it means to have culture, how culture forms, how individual characteristics feed into the culture, and even more importantly, what it means to be human * and what it means to be bonobo. (HD06016)

Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S., & Lewin, R. (1994) Kanzi: at the brink of the human mind. New York: John Wiley.
Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S., Murphy, J., Sevcik, R. A., Brakke, K. E., Williams, S., & Rumbaugh, D. M. (1993). Language comprehension in ape and child. Monographs of the Society for Reesearh in Child Development, Servial No., 233, 58(3-4), 1-22.