Orangutan Pantomime: Elaborating the Message

Anne Russon, Glendon College
Kristin Andrews, York University



We present an exploratory study of forest-living orangutan pantomiming, i.e. gesturing in which they act out their meaning, focusing on its occurrence, communicative functions, and complexities. Studies show that captive great apes may elaborate messages if communication fails, and isolated reports suggest that great apes occasionally pantomime. We predicted forest-living orangutans would pantomime spontaneously to communicate, especially to elaborate after communication failures. Mining existing databases on free-ranging rehabilitant orangutans’ behaviour identified 18 salient pantomimes. These pantomimes most often functioned as elaborations of failed requests, but also as deceptions and declaratives. Complexities identified include multimodality, re-enactments of past events and several features of language (productivity, compositionality, systematicity). These findings confirm that freeranging rehabilitant orangutans pantomime and use pantomime to elaborate on their messages. Further, they use pantomime for multiple functions and create complex pantomimes that can express propositionally structured content. Thus, orangutan pantomime serves as a medium for communication, not a particular function. Mining cases of complex great ape communication originally reported in functional terms may then yield more evidence of pantomime.