I recently read this fascinating article about orangutans in the Borneo rainforest communicating with humans and other apes using mime – an artform rather more associated with third-rate street performers.
“Of course what orangutans do isn’t up to Marcel Marceau, but they can certainly fake their own bodily signals, the essence of pantomime, and that opens up a much richer world of communication than we have believed possible,” added Russon, a Glendon College professor of psychology.
Russon and colleague Kristin Andrews identified pantomime cases by mining 20 years of text and video data from observational studies conducted on orangutans.
“Pantomime, like language, can be used to declare, lie, request, reminisce, tell stories, teach, explain and more,” Andrews told Discovery News. “We saw cases of pantomime used to request and to deceive, which are typical examples of great ape communication but, interestingly, we also report one case of pantomime used to tell a story, to reminisce and to make a statement.”
They not only use mime to communicate with others – for example the orangutan who would chop at coconuts with a stick in the same way that humans open them with machetes, in order to communicate that she wanted somebody to cut open her coconut for her – but have even reached the stage where mimicking human behavior can teach them valuable skills:
[...] an older orangutan female named Kikan reenacted how a human worker helped to heal Kikan’s wounded foot. Beforehand, the person noticed that Kikan had accidentally pierced the sole of her foot with a small stone, so the worker used a pencil to pick the stone out and then dripped latex from the stem of a fig leaf into the wound. Such latex is locally known to help dry wounds.
Kikan watched all of this intently and resumed playing when the treatment finished.
Over a week later, Kikan hugged the human healer’s leg. The worker was busy observing another orangutan and didn’t pay much attention. Kikan returned with a leaf and completely reenacted the leaf treatment that had been given to her foot. Three months later, Kikan held up her now-healed foot to the person.
Orangutans are apparently not alone in this habit: bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas have also been known to communicate in this charades-style fashion.
Which leads me to my next question: how long before they band together and overthrow the humans?