you have ever lived in a place with monkey menace, you would know
that monkeys are highly intelligent and have impressive ability to
use tools. They can open latches, screw cap bottles and door handles
and are very efficient in getting food even in urban settings.
Monkeys can also communicate with other monkeys using gestures and
vocal calls, for example they have separate calls for when they are
in danger and for food availability. However, could their
communication be considered as a language system or is it just
reflexive gesturing or calls?
of the main features of language is intentionality, which means that
the animal can understand the mental state of the animal it is
communicating to. This intentionality can manifest in different ways.
Two communicating humans can understand each other’s intentions,
mental states and goals and intentions. This ability is called
‘theory of mind’. David Premack in his classic 1978 paper- “Does
the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?”- showed that chimpanzees can also
understand the intention of a human actor. However,
intentionality can also occur without theory of mind, like in captive
monkeys, where studies have shown intentional communication between
monkeys and human caregivers.
it comes to wild monkeys, the issue is contentious. Anindya Sinha and
his group from National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, who
study communication behaviour of troupes of wild bonnet macaques
in the Bandipur area in Karnataka, have shown that wild bonnet
macaques show intentionality while signalling among conspecific members within a troupe. In a new study published in Scientific Reports they have showed that wild macaque monkeys make intentional novel
communication with humans using vocal calls and gestures to ask for
food. When the human had food, the monkeys made a hand extension
gesture with an open palm towards the human. This is new behaviour,
which is different from other food reaching or handling behaviour
seen in the wild. These monkeys also orient their head towards the
human, monitoring their reaction and adjusting their posture to get
the attention of the human. The monkeys persist until the food
reward is obtained and made a specific coo-call during this interaction.
authors say that this is the first documented evidence of such
behaviour in monkeys in the wild. To prove intentionality of this
gesture, the authors say that it passes the criteria for
intentionality established by previous research in other monkey
species. Adwait Deshpande who is the first author in the paper says “We showed that monkeys use hand extension gesture depending on the
attentional state of human receiver. They perform this gesture only
when humans are directly looking at them. This is an evidence for
This shows that the
monkeys have the mental capability to communicate flexibly with
humans. They were able to figure out if the human is paying attention. If the human is not paying attention, they change their
posture to make their presence felt. Finally, they persist in the
communicative gesture until food is delivered. They
gestured only when they encountered a human with food and stopped when they
got the food.
study shows for the first time, wild untrained monkeys communicating intentionally with unfamiliar humans using a novel communicative
gesture. Intentionality is an important concept in understanding
consciousness. Daniel Dennett, the philosopher coined the phrase
‘intentional stance’ to indicate the highest level of analysis by
an organism, which is to understand other’s mental state and predict
their behaviour. Intentionality is also the cornerstone of evolution
of language in humans. This study shows that the building blocks
needed for the evolution of language is present in the monkeys.