chimpanzee communicative intentions

Michael Tomasello tomas at EVA.MPG.DE
Fri Feb 23 06:29:38 UTC 2001

The way we have analyzed intentions in chimpanzee gestural communication
is as follows:

1.  Sometimes a youngster intends to crawl up on Mom's back and tries to
do so.
2. After a few attempts, Mom anticipates what is coming at the first
touch on the back and so lowers her back immediately.
3. The youngster notices the effectiveness of the first touch only, and
so now just touches Mom's back lightly and waits for her to respond (the
touch is what is referred to as an 'intention movement' - it is

The youngster originally had an intention - to get on Mom's back - but
the process of (ontogenetic) ritualization transformed that into a
communicative intention - to get Mom to lower her back.

Please note that none of this means that the youngster is trying to
manipulate Mom's intentions - which would be still another additional
involvement of intentionality.  Our take is that the chimp youngster,
unlike human infants from about one year of age, has communicative
intentions concerning Mom's behavior only.  In contrast, human infants
from very early have communicative intentions towards the intentions and
attention of others, and these are manifest first in gestures and then
in language.

There are lots of references, but two reviews (that cite the original
research) are:
Tomasello, M. & Camaioni, L. (1997).  A comparison of the gestural
communication of apes and human infants.  Human Development, 40, 7-24.
Tomasello, M. (1998).  Reference: Intending that others jointly attend.
Pragmatics and Cognition, 6, 219-234.

Mike Tomasello

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