Hand to Mouth

Language makes humans different to other animals, but how language emerged through evolution remains a mystery.

Hand to Mouth is a comparative research project to investigate the evolution and development of language. We have created puzzle boxes (with rewards) which can be manipulated by gorillas and young human children to test a unique theory linking tool use and speech.

One of the skills considered important for the evolution of language is tool use, and solving problems by moving objects with our hands and using tools can help us learn how to communicate.

Alongside postdoc researcher Dr Georgina Donati, we developed a range of puzzle boxes with edible rewards inside them, to test different kinds of problem-solving skills. Experiments have been taking place with chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans at Twycross Zoo and gorillas at Aspinall Foundation’s Port Lympne Wild Animal Park, looking at how different ape species use their hands to solve the puzzle box problems. We’ve used the same boxes to test young human children aged 18 to 36 months for comparison against the other great apes, and also if child puzzle box solving ability has a relationship with their language-level ability.

New Scientist, the world’s most popular weekly science and technology publication, has been following the research and has produced a video on the project as well as a news article.

We had a great 2 days with collaborators at Twycross Zoo engaging with the public about great apes and the research project. Visitors to the zoo were encouraged to take part in the puzzle box challenge, to see if they could solve the problem like the great apes could.

The research project, Hand to Mouth: The Role of Tool-Use in the Evolution and Development of Language, is funded by the Leverhulme Trust.