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Gesture, cognition and hemispheric specialization in primates: Implications for the origins of language – LangPrimate


Gestures, cognition and hemispheric specialization in primates: Implications for the origins of language.

Humans/primates continuities in the communicative systems

Investigate the continuities of primate behaviors and their neuroanatomical correlates with several language properties (intentional and referential properties, lateralization, hand/mouth connexion, left hemispheric specialization).

1. Ethological observations including field work and video coding in baboons and chimpanzees (focal & behavioral sampling) :
- Hand preferences
- Hand/mouth synchronization
- Structure of social interactions

2. Comparative experimental psychology in baboons (focal & behavioral sampling) :
- Hand preferences
- Investigation of social cognition and of intentional and referential properties in gestural communication

3. Anatomical brain imaging in baboons (using RMI)
- Collection of anatomical brain in vivo images (in anesthetized subjects) and of post-mortem brains
- Investigation of neuroanatomical asymmetries and behavioral correlates

T1 : (1) the behavioral data base on hand preferences has been increased in baboons and chimpanzees (unimanual and bimanual behaviors, gestural communication).
(2) Criteria of intentional communication have been reported in the gestural system of baboons.

T2 : (1) Collection of video clip on the social interaction of baboons from the Station de Primatologie CNRS.
(2) Demonstration of motor associations between the manual activities of mutual grooming and oro-facial movements.

T3 : Collection in progress of anatomical in vivo brain images and of post mortem brains.

T4 : The neuroanatomical analyses of brain images will start at month 12.

Training: 5 master degree's students and 3 licence degree's students have realized their research internship in our team.

Constitution of a large shared data base of baboons behaviors, of anatomical MRI brain scans and of cadaver brains.


Meguerditchian, A., Vauclair, J., & Hopkins, W. D. (in press). On the origins of human handedness and language: A comparative review of hand preferences for bimanual coordinated actions and gestural communication in nonhuman primates. Developmental Psychobiology.

Bourjade, M., Meguerditchian, A., Maille, A., & Vauclair, J. (in revision). Attribution of attention as a prerequisite of intentional gesturing in baboons (Papio anubis). Animal Behaviour.

National Communications

Meguerditchian, A., & Vauclair, J. (2013, Février). Contribution du modèle primate dans les recherches sur les origines du langage. Communication affichée au Colloque annuel de la Société d'anthropologie de Paris, 1838e réunion scientifique, Paris, France.

Meguerditchian, A., Cochet, H., Hopkins, W. D., & Vauclair, J. (2013, Février). Communication, manipulation, latéralité et spécialisation hémisphérique cérébrale: approche comparative entre primates humains et non humains. Communication orale au Colloque annuel de la Société d'anthropologie de Paris, 1838e réunion scientifique, Paris, France.

Invited Conferences

Meguerditchian, A. (2013, Juin). Aux origines du langage : Cerveau et communication gestuelle et vocale des primates non humains. Conférence Stem-cell and Brain Research Institute, Bron, France.

Meguerditchian, A. (2013, mai). Projet ANR LangPrimate - Aux origines du langage : Gestes et spécialisation hémisphérique chez le babouin. Rencontres de l'INT projets IRMf, Marseille, France.

Meguerditchian, A. (2013, avril). Que nous enseignent les comportements des primates sur les origines du langage ? Café des sciences, Avignon, France.

Language is an extraordinary and unique intentional and referential system of communication involving complex cognitive functions and hemispheric specialization of the brain. Given the phylogenetic proximity between humans and nonhuman primate species, the investigation of the communicative system within a comparative approach between primate species might enable detecting the potential precursors of some language properties in our common ancestors. One of the goals of the LangPrimate project is to explore the question of the gestural origin of language which contrasts with the theory of the vocal origin of language. Most of the studies that investigated the gestural system have focused on our closest relative, the chimpanzees. However, data in more distant primate species such as Old World monkey (e.g. baboons) are almost inexistent in the literature.

The proposed project aims at developing an ambitious multidisciplinary approach in order to investigate the potential continuities between the gestural system in captive baboons and several language features such as intentional and referential properties and left-hemispheric cortical specialization. For this purpose, a first original objective of the project is to explore in the gestural system of baboons, the criteria used in human children for detecting the emergence of intentional and referential communication (alternation of gaze, audience effect, adjustment to the attentional state of the recipient, persistence of the signal) and another aspect of social cognition: the gaze following skills. An innovative analytic methodology used in humans will also be explored for the first time in nonhuman primates in order to investigate the structure of communicative interactions between two individuals. This method might enable evaluating whether the behavioral units of a baboon included in an interaction are randomly produced or rather organized into a complex hierarchical sequence and related to a specific achievement, as it has been demonstrated in human conversations. A large behavioral data base in the baboons will be thus constituted including inter-individual differences in terms of gestural and social cognitive skills but also of hand preferences that have been previously assessed in the baboons (left- or right-handed) for communicative gestures in comparison to non-communicative motor actions. A second original objective of the project is to investigate the neuroanatomical correlates of these inter-individual behavioral differences. A large sample of anatomical in vivo and post mortem brain magnetic resonance images (MRI) will be collected in the subjects for which behavioral data are available. The computer analyses of the brain MRI scans will aim at (1) identifying some specific cortical regions such as the inferior frontal gyrus, the planum temporale - that are known to overlap key regions involved in the complex cortical network of language in humans (i.e., Broca's and Wernicke's areas) - and the motor hand area as well, (2) quantifying the morphological variability and the hemispheric asymmetry of these regions, and (3) evaluating their behavioral correlates.

At the interface of the Cognitive Psychology Laboratory, the station of Primatology CNRS and the MRIf platform of the Institute of Neuroscience of la Timone, the LangPrimate project will involve a unique consortium of high qualified collaborators, experts in animal cognition, linguistics, primate neurosciences and brain images analyses.

Project coordination

Adrien MEGUERDITCHIAN (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique Délégation Provence et Corse _ Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive) – adrien.meguerditchian@univ-amu.fr

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


CNRS DR12 _ LPC Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique Délégation Provence et Corse _ Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive

Help of the ANR 454,916 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: November 2012 - 36 Months

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