Freud, Wilkie and the other chimpanzees peacefully fed and rested in the sun-dappled Tanzanian forest. Mzee Hilali stood next to me, writing notes on the chimpanzees’ behavior, as he had been doing for over 30 years as a field assistant for Jane Goodall’s long-term study at Gombe National Park.
Suddenly, a strange, high-pitched call sounded from where some other chimpanzees were feeding, about a hundred meters from us. Hilali turned to me, and with a little laugh, said, “Nyoka.” This was the Swahili word for “snake.”
Freud climbed down from his tree and walked quickly toward where the call had sounded, with Hilali following close behind. As I slowly made my way through the undergrowth to catch up with them, Hilali called to me: “Chatu!” “Python!”
When I caught up with Hilali, he was pointing to a tangled mass of leaves and vines on the forest floor. I looked closely – most of the snake lay hidden from view, but the one visible stretch of black and tan scaly hide was too big to be anything but a python.
From years of experience, Mzee Hilali knew instantly that this particular chimp call meant they’d found a snake. Does this mean that chimpanzees have a “word” for snake? Do chimpanzees have a language of their own? I’ve been working with a team of students and Tanzanian field assistants to record and analyze chimpanzee vocalizations in an effort to answer questions like this. Ultimately we hope to learn more about how human language first evolved.
Read more: The Conversation