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The Prehistory of Language$
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Rudolf Botha and Chris Knight

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780199545872

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199545872.001.0001

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The directed scratch: evidence for a referential gesture in chimpanzees? *

The directed scratch: evidence for a referential gesture in chimpanzees? *

(p.166) 9 The directed scratch: evidence for a referential gesture in chimpanzees?*
The Prehistory of Language

Simone Pika

John C. Mitani

Oxford University Press

This chapter presents observations that suggest wild chimpanzees use a gesture, the directed scratch, in a referential fashion. Directed scratches share two crucial components with homesign systems. They involve some form of reference and may specify a distinct action, therefore qualifying as characterizing signs. Although homesign systems go a step beyond, by exhibiting simple grammatical structure and recursion, directed scratches may constitute the first step toward symbolic gestures. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that gestures used by our closest living relatives might have been the crucial modality within which the evolutionary precursors of symbolic communication evolved. Additional comparative research investigating the factors triggering the development of referential gestures will be required to resolve what is unique to humans and what constitutes ‘fossil’ forms of human language or language abilities.

Keywords:   chimpanzees, gestures, directed scratch, grooming, homesigns, language development, language capacity, evolution

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