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Can Chimps Talk? Transcript

This transcript is provided as a service of Journal Graphics. The WGBH 
Educational Foundation is not responsible for any errors or 
mischaracterizations in this transcript. This transcript has not been 
proofread against the videotape and the producer's records and its accuracy 
cannot be guaranteed. (JPM) 

NOVA Show #2105 

Air Date: February 15, 1994 

Can Chimps Talk? 

ANNOUNCER:  Tonight on Nova, a chimpanzee called Kanzi seems to 
understand human speech to a degree never before thought possible. 

SUE SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH, Georgia State University:  Parents really don't 
know how they teach their children language. Why should I have to know how 
I teach Kanzi language? I just act normal around him, and he learns it. 

ANNOUNCER:  The capacity for language was long thought to be 
exclusively ours, but some remarkable apes caused us to ask, `Can Chimps 

JANINE MURPHY [sp?]:  Kanzi, this is Janine. Would you like any food? 
Tell me what food you'd like. 

TALKING KEYBOARD:  Food surprise. 

Ms. MURPHY:  Some food surprise? 

TALKING KEYBOARD:  Food surprise. 

Ms. MURPHY:  Kanzi, would you like a juice, or some M&Ms, or some sugar 


Ms. MURPHY:  You like M&Ms? Okay. Kanzi, is there any other food you'd like me to bring in the backpack? 


Ms. MURPHY:  A ball? Okay. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] This conversation is the first time that the 
chimp Kanzi has ever spoken on the telephone, using his talking keyboard. 
On the other end of the phone was Janine Murphy. It was a conversation with 
someone not physically present, about events yet to take place. It's not 
the kind of thing which scientists thought chimpanzees could do. 

SUE SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH, Georgia State University:  In looking at what 
Kanzi can do, the kinds of utterances that he can emit without any specific 
training, the kinds of really complex sentences that he can understand 
without any training, make one suspect that in apes now, and certainly in 
early hominids, there was a capacity for some form of primitive language. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] The idea that apes and humans might share a 
common potential for language radically undermines the view that there is a 
strict divide between humans and the animal world. Kanzi is a bonobo [sp?], 
a rare chimpanzee species, and the latest in a long line of apes to be used 
by scientists to study language. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  You want to help get some sticks? Good. I have a 
lighter in my pocket, if you need one. You can get it out. 

[to interviewer] There's a lot of discomfort in accepting the fact 
that apes really have language. Kanzi's ability to understand suggests to 
me that if he had a human vocal tract, he would be talking. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] This is probably the strongest claim ever made 
for the linguistic capacity of a chimpanzee. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  Kanzi, I need you to break this stick for Sue, 

[to interviewer] We, as human beings, have always considered 
language our own domain, in that it is innate. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Most current theories of linguistics assume 
that only humans can acquire language. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  You've got to put some water on the fire. Do you 
see the water? 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Only humans are thought to have a brain 
specially evolved to decode the complex rules of grammar. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  Good job. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Now, Kanzi's abilities are forcing scientists 
to reexamine this fundamental idea. Experiments to discover whether apes 
could acquire some form of human communication have created an academic 
storm which has raged for decades. One of the most famous and controversial 
attempts began nearly 30 years ago, in Reno, Nevada. 

ALLEN GARDNER, University of Nevada:  On June 21st, 1966, an infant 
chimpanzee arrived in our laboratory. We named her Washoe, for Washoe 
County, the home of the University of Nevada. Because she was captured wild 
in Africa, we will never know just where or when Washoe was born, but we 
estimate that she was about 10 months old when she arrived in Reno. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Because chimps' vocal apparatus don't allow 
them to make the sounds of human speech, psychologists Allen and Trixie 
Gardner decided to teach Washoe American sign language, used by the deaf. 
To help Washoe learn her signs, they used many techniques, including fun 
and familiar games, repeated over and over again. 

BEATRIX GARDNER, University of Nevada:  The first sign that we did 
indeed teach to Washoe was the sign for more. More. More. More. More. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Natural chimpanzee gestures provided the basis 
for some signs. 

Ms. GARDNER:  Come. Open. Open hurry. Open. Open hurry. Open hurry. 
Open. Open. Open. Good, good, good me. Yes, you're very good. Good go. Good 
go. Where? You peekaboo. Out me. Open. Hide. Peekaboo. Okay. Come good 
Washoe, come with me. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] The Gardners reported that Washoe could 
eventually use 133 signs. 

Ms. GARDNER:  Good Washoe and I are going to go. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] By then, Washoe was five years old. 

Ms. GARDNER:  Good me. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Altogether, the Gardners collected more than 20 
years of data. Their research covered all aspects of chimp development, but 
it was the experiments in sign language which caught the imagination of 
scientists and public alike. For the first time, an ape was using human 
language, as these films clearly showed. But instead of sealing the ape 
language debate, these images were to become the focus for a bitter 

In this sequence from 1974, Washoe is shown a baby doll inside a 
cup. The camera seems to capture clear evidence of a chimpanzee sentence, 
`Baby in my drink.' The problems began when another chimp began his career 
as a language student, commuting daily to Columbia University in New York. 
The researcher, Herb Terrace [sp?], was trying to replicate the Gardner 
study using his own ape, called Nim Chimsky. The name was a lighthearted 
dig at linguist Noam Chomsky, who believed language ability was confined to 
the human species. Terrace hoped to teach Nim to assemble signs into 
sentences, using the rules of grammar, but the experiment did not turn out 
quite as Terrace planned. 

HERB TERRACE:  The main goal of Project Nim was to ask whether a 
chimpanzee could create a sentence. I have concluded that, unfortunately, 
the answer to that question is no. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] In this example, Nim seems to be using a 
combination of signs to ask if he can hug the cat, but Terrace argued that 
he was not actually making a sentence. By freezing the tape, you can see 
that first the trainer makes the sign for hug, and just a few frames later, 
Nim copies her. Next, the trainer signs cat, and shortly after, so does 
Nim. Terrace concluded that chimps cannot produce language, they can just 
imitate their trainers. Terrace also looked at some of the Gardners' films. 
He decided that Washoe, too, was being led by her teacher. The Gardners 
disagreed, and attacked Terrace's methodology. 

Mr. GARDNER:  Well, Herb Terrace set out to prove that if you use 
Skinnerian reinforcement you could teach a chimpanzee syntax. It was an 
entirely different objective from ours. And when he failed, he declared 
that everybody had failed. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] The Gardners also point out that in the 
disputed example, Washoe's signs are quite different from her teacher's, 
and so can't possibly be imitation. Susan is asking, `What that?' and 
Washoe answers, `Baby in my drink.' This, they say, was a typical 
conversation, and was interesting because of its similarity to ordinary 
conversations between adults and young children. 

Mr. GARDNER:  What we were interested in is not whether it fitted some 
abstract theory of linguistics, but whether the chimpanzees could actually 
communicate information to us, things we didn't already know. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] The Gardners continued their experiments with 
four more chimps who, like Washoe, were all brought up as human children. 
They tested their ability to communicate under controlled, double-blind 
conditions. The chimp could see an image on the screen, but the 
experimenter could not. Two independent observers had to agree for the sign 
to be marked correct. The chimps showed reliable and consistent signing. 
They had vocabularies above 100 signs, and each used them in their own 
individual ways. 

Ms. GARDNER:  Tatu, unlike the others, had black as her very favorite 
color. We would go through magazines, looking for black things, and she 
would go around naming black things for you. `That's black, and that's 
black, and that is black.' And sometimes you could even tease her about 
that. You'd go through a magazine and she'd point at it, at a picture, and 
give you eye-to-eye contact - the question, `What is that?' - and for a 
while, you played her game and you said, `It's black, it's black,' using 
her favorite sign. But then you'd tease her and say it was red, and of 
course she would correct you right away and say, `It's black. That's 
black.' It's a very nice conversational use of sign language. She knew the 
answer, but she wanted you to talk about that. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] But the arguments over ape language persisted. 

PATRICIA MARKS GREENFIELD, UCLA:  I think that there are a lot of 
people who are very worried about us finding a relationship between humans 
and animals, and they want there to be an absolute dividing line. What 
Terrace did was again to say, `Yes, there is a line,' and I think people 
responded very emotionally. And instead of it just being another point of 
view where it would be interesting to do further research and see who was 
right, Terrace or the people who had done the early work, such as the 
Gardners, the whole field just closed down. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Eventually, the Gardners' funding ran out, and 
their chimps were moved to another university. The early dreams of rearing 
them to adolescence and beyond were never fulfilled. While the eight 
researchers were battling over Washoe, Nim and definitions of language, 
Patricia Greenfield was taking a fresh look at how human children use their 
first words. If apes were a species on the threshold of developing 
language, it seemed logical to compare them with a child at a similar 
point. Her subjects were even closer to home. She studied her own children, 
Matthew and Lauren. Here is Matthew with his mother now, and this is 
Matthew, captured on film at the age of two as part of the study. 

Ms. GREENFIELD:  I knew all about the Chomskyan approach to child 
language development, which is an approach in which grammar is very 
central, and the child is considered sort of like a little grammar machine, 
or becoming a big grammar machine. And when my daughter Lauren started to 
speak, what absolutely hit me was that this was not- what she was doing was 
nothing like what they were describing. And in fact, what they were 
describing were children combining words with words, using rules, but what 
she was doing when she first started to talk was combining words with 
things, with people, with gesture, all sorts of nonverbal elements. 

Do you want another piece of cheese? 

LAUREN:  Yes. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Greenfield showed that these verbal and 
nonverbal elements had a grammar of their own. This was the foundation on 
which full-blown language would be built. 

Ms. GREENFIELD:  Would you like some potato? 

LAUREN:  Open. 

Ms. GREENFIELD:  But that approach was very unpopular, and was very 
heavily criticized, I think to a large extent because of the bias that 
words are realer than these nonverbal elements, and that if somebody 
expresses something in a word, you know it was really there. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Greenfield, too, looked at the Gardners' films 
and saw that their chimps combined word signs with gestures to get their 
meaning across. This could be the same precursor to language as she had 
seen in children. 

Ms. GREENFIELD:  Children can do something and it's called language. 
Say a two-year-old does something, the researcher calls it child language. 
A chimpanzee does the same thing, and it's not language. And I think the 
reason is, there's a double standard, and what the double standard comes 
from is the fact that we all know that children will ultimately grow up and 
speak full-blown human language. We also know that chimpanzees will not 
grow up and ultimately speak or produce full-blown human language, and so 
there's a bias in the interpretation of the data. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] One attempt at getting data free from bias 
involved Lana. Instead of sign language, she was given a computer keyboard, 
with symbols to represent words. The keys she pressed were automatically 
recorded, so there could be no argument over what she had said. 

DUANE RUMBAUGH, Georgia State University:  The keys were made of 
plastic. They were backlighted, and when they were touched they gained an 
additional level of brilliance. Then a facsimile of the lexagram on the 
surface of the key was produced in one of the projectors in a row above her 
keyboard, and thus she was able to produce a string of lexagrams, if you 
would, a primitive sentence. So this was the idea that launched the Lana 
project and the idea which, in fact, has carried the research project with 
chimpanzees and also with children across the time span now of better than 
20 years. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Duane Rumbaugh's computer technology and Sue 
Savage-Rumbaugh's experience with signing chimpanzees led to a formidable 
alliance which has given ape language research a fresh start. Here in 
Atlanta, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh also had access to a different species of 
chimpanzee. Previous research used the common chimpanzee, but she was 
attracted by a number of differences found in the bonobo. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  This species is very, very rare and endangered, 
found only in a small area of Zaire, and was only identified as a separate 
species in 1929. They differ from the so-called common chimpanzee in a 
number of ways. First of all, they have very stable large social groups in 
which there are strong ties between males and females. They have a very, 
very low level of aggression, and the society seems organized around caring 
for young bonobos. Subjectively, it has an extraordinarily different feel 
from other chimpanzees. The facial expressions of bonobos are much more 
humanlike. The vocalizations of bonobos are much more frequent and much 
higher-pitched. Common chimpanzees, although very wonderful creatures are, 
compared to the bonobo, somewhat stand-offish. The bonobos like physical 
contact, they like to be around people. Kanzi's mother, who was a 
wild-caught bonobo, is one of my very best friends. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Matada [sp?] was also the starting point for 
what has been described as a groundbreaking project, to establish just how 
well a chimpanzee can develop a competence with human language. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  We began with Matada, and she was not a very 
adept pupil. Matada seemed to have many ways of communicating. She would 
lead me around by the hand, she would vocalize, she would look off in the 
distance and vocalize and gesture to me, and I had no question but what she 
was trying to communicate with me. But she seemed to think lexagrams were a 
rather ridiculous method of communication. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] But while Matada wasn't learning, her son Kanzi 
very rapidly caught on to the possibilities of the keyboard when he was 
only a few months old. He learned that each abstract symbol on the board 
meant something. Here, he pressed `bite.' What he wanted was a bite of what 
Sue had in her mouth. His use of symbols was the equivalent of a young 
child using single words. 

Ten years later, Kanzi easily identifies words spoken by complete 
strangers, and can echo them by pressing the correct key on the lexagram 
board, which now talks. 

TALKING KEYBOARD:  Potato. Shoe. Give. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  The most exciting thing with Kanzi was that he 
began to use this keyboard very, very frequently. He clearly helped us 
understand that he knew what those symbols meant. For example, if Kanzi 
said something like, `Chase apple,' he then would go over and pick up the 
apple and start running away, and look back at me, showing me behaviorally 
that he knew what he had said, and gauging me. 

When I first found out that Kanzi was learning language without any 
attempt on my part to really teach him, it was just as we were coming up 
for funding renewal. Kanzi was about three or three and a half years of 
age, and the site visitors kept asking me, `Well, we understand that 
Kanzi's doing this, we've seen him do it, we hear you say that he's 
learning how to understand words in some sentences, but how is he doing it? 
How did you teach him to do it? How did you get him to do it?' 

And I was at a complete loss. I said, `Well, parents really don't 
know how they teach their children language. Why should I have to know how 
I teach Kanzi language? I just act normal around him and he learns it. I 
don't really know what's going on in his head.' But they made me realize 
that, unlike a parent, as a scientist I really had an obligation to figure 
out how this was happening. 

Kanzi was an ape, not a child, and so I wanted to construct some 
kind of environment that would make the usage of language real for Kanzi. 
And I asked myself, `Well, what do apes do in the wild?' Well, everyone 
knows they travel around to different places and they find food and they 
eat it, so I decided, because we had 55 acres of forest, to have certain 
feeding areas, and to spend Kanzi's days traveling from place to place, 
talking about where we were going to go, what kind of food we were going to 
eat, and what we were going to do next. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] The experiment continued with Kanzi's sister, 
and everyday use of English language. 

RESEARCH ASSISTANT:  Panbenisha, will you do something for Sue? 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  And then you'll chase her. 

RESEARCH ASSISTANT:  And then I'll chase you. 


Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  Tell her yes, you'll chase her, but you want her 
to do something for me later on. 

RESEARCH ASSISTANT:  And I want you to do something for Sue. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  Now, we're going to do some things, and then Ryan 
will chase you, okay, Panbenisha? Could you throw the kiwi? Good job, good 
job. Thank you. You can have some jelly, it's all right. Let's go chase, 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  What we have begun to learn is that chimpanzees 
and, I suspect as well, children have an intrinsic desire to try to figure 
out what's going to happen to them next. They would like their world to be 
predictable, whether they're going for a walk in the woods, whether they're 
going down to visit the river. They'd sort of like to know, when they're 
very young, in particular, what everybody is going to do next. And so, 
because they really want to know this, there's an intrinsic desire to 
figure out what the language is about. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  I've got the onions in a bowl. Let's go put them 
in our hot food and we'll come back and turn the TV on. Put your onions 
right here and put them in your bowl. Look, you spilled some of them. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] The chimps have responded well to such a rich 
environment, and show an unprecedented grasp of spoken English. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  Let me get you a spoon to stir it with, Kanzi. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] In addition to spoken language, they receive a 
steady stream of nonverbal cues, attention-directing maneuvers, and 
repetition, the hallmarks of the way we speak to young children. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  Here, will you wash this potato off for me? Could 
you wash the potato? 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Sue Savage-Rumbaugh is convinced that the 
combination of all these everyday interactions at an early age is essential 
for the acquisition of language. Scientists call this process 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  All right. Your noodles are going to go in here, 
and you can have a few of them for your tummy. Kanzi, could you turn the 
water off again, please? Turn the water off, please. 
NARRATOR:  [voice-over] In the kitchen, in Sue's company, Kanzi 
functions impressively. But does Kanzi, like a human, really have the 
ability to understand words? He can match spoken words with lexagrams, but 
what do they mean to him? Can he make the connection between words and 
things in the real world under test conditions? 

A set of 16 photographs has been selected from the several hundred 
which represent the nouns in his vocabulary. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  Okay, here's your pictures. Here's your pictures. 
Watch now, they're coming around. All right. Kanzi, see if you can find 
mushrooms. Mushrooms. That's right, those are the mushrooms. Real good. Can 
you turn back around? Okay. Now, now- okay, you're doing real good, Kanzi. 
See if you can find Mardu [sp?] the orangutan. Do you see Mardu? Good job. 
Good job. See if you can find some melon. Melon. Melon. Thank you. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Kanzi consistently scores better than 90 
percent with such sets of pictures. A more rigorous test involves Kanzi 
wearing headphones, so only he can hear which picture is being requested. 

RESEARCH ASSISTANT:  Kanzi, give Sue bananas. That's right. Kanzi, give 
Sue ice. That's right. Kanzi, give Sue pears. That's right. Kanzi, give Sue 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] The tests on single words are convincing, but 
how does Kanzi deal with words in combination? How do researchers know that 
he is not just doing the most obvious thing, given the range of 
possibilities available to him? One of the hallmarks of human language is 
its creativity, the possibility of expressing an infinite number of ideas. 
We can understand the meaning of a sentence even if we have never heard its 
words in that particular order ever before. Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh set out to 
test whether the same applied to Kanzi. There were 600 sentences in all, 
designed to use different grammatical forms and to be as unpredictable as 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  Give the doggie a shot. Good job. Put the keys in 
the refrigerator. Good job. Thank you. Very nice. Okay. Go get the ball 
that's outdoors. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] To do this, Kanzi has to ignore another ball 
which is indoors. That Kanzi could comprehend and carry out such 
instructions is interesting enough, but Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh went a step 
further. How did Kanzi's understanding of language compare with that of 
human children? Janine Murphy volunteered her daughter, Alea [sp?], to take 
part in an identical study at the age of two years. On some sentence types, 
Kanzi excelled; on others the child did better. But by and large, both were 
correct about three-quarters of the time. So far as comprehension went, 
child and chimp were on a par. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  Could you take my shoe off, please? You might 
need to untie it. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] For both child and chimp, the ability to 
understand outstripped their ability to produce language, the girl because 
of her age, and Kanzi because the chimpanzee vocal tract does not allow it. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  :  Now you can take it off. It will come off now. 

Mr. SAVAGE:  It is in what an individual comprehends that we use as the 
basis for saying that individual is language-competent. If they can't speak 
because of some anatomic reason, we don't say, well, they don't have 
language. We say that they can't speak and they need some other kind of 
medium for that. 

TALKING KEYBOARD:  Want milk. Milk. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  You want some milk? I know, you always want some 
milk when you're planning to be good. 

TALKING KEYBOARD:  Key. Matada. Good. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  Oh, you want the key to Matada, and you're going 
to be good. Well, I'm glad to hear that. I'm glad to hear that. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  For a long time, it was thought that only the 
human brain could understand human speech. Now we know that Kanzi's brain 
can understand human speech, which says very clearly that something 
important happened in our evolution. Our brains were able to understand 
speech, and suddenly our mouths became able to produce speech. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] The sudden emergence of speech from a hominid, 
which hitherto had, like the ape, only a potential for language, may be 
linked with our unique anatomy. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  I suspect that there's something very, very 
unique about the human bipedal posture and the human vocal laryngeal 
apparatus. One of the things that we know it enables us to do is make 
sounds like ga and ba and pa and da, sounds that we call consonants. Kanzi 
can't make these kinds of sounds. His sounds are mostly vowel sounds. And 
if I try to talk to another person using only vowel sounds, they can't 
understand me. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Kanzi often tries to copy human speech, but 
analysis of the voiceprints of human and bonobo shows the problem. The 
human print shows the boundaries of the words clearly, where Kanzi's are 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  We tried to invent a language for Kanzi that was 
composed only of vowel sounds, and we couldn't understand ourselves, which 
tells you what consonants do for us. They wrap little packages around vowel 
sounds. They are like edges around vowel sounds, and they help us tell our 
words apart, where one word stops and another word starts. And because we 
could do that, we could invent languages. We could utter new sounds that 
were discriminably different. We could go around and name all kinds of 
things with words that sounded different to other individuals. And I think 
this must have been a great turning point in the evolution of mankind. And 
I think if you could give chimpanzees or bonobos that same ability today, 
they would take off and they might follow a course that would be eerily 
similar to that of our own species. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Research in areas other than language is 
showing similar results. In Columbus, Ohio, Sarah Boyson is exploring the 
way chimps handle numbers, and is finding capabilities never before 

SARAH BOYSON, Ohio State University:  Can you bring me one just like 
this? That's the right one, huh-huh. It's just like that, isn't it? This 
here is a little gumdrop. That was good. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Sarah Boyson previously worked with Sue 
Savage-Rumbaugh. She uses nursery style methods of education with her 
chimps to encourage the development of mathematical skills. Bobby is five 
years old. In the wild, he would still be very dependent on his mother, and 
only just weaned. 

Ms. BOYSON:  Like that? No, they don't look alike. They don't look 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] As with children, it takes patience and 
repetition to convey key concepts. 

Ms. BOYSON:  This one looks like that one. Oh-oh. That looks like this. 
That has a mat. You are doing such a good job today. Look, here a red 
gumdrop and a yellow jellybean, just for you. That's right, two things, 
one, two things. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Bobby is learning to identify numbers of things 
with Arabic numerals. 

Ms. BOYSON:  One, you have to watch, one, two, three, four. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Using his touch screen, Bobby is able to 
clearly indicate his choices. Technology is combined with essential human 

Ms. BOYSON:  Similar to a child, you have to create a loving 
environment in order to have a healthy, confident child. You have to create 
a similar kind of relationship with a chimpanzee in order to have a 
healthy, happy, confident chimpanzee student. What that buys you, when they 
are a little older, is a willingness to negotiate and to persist at a task 
when otherwise they might not be so excited about working further that day. 

[to chimp] You ready for your [unintelligible] already? Okay. Now, 
watch what I'm going to do. I'm going to put a banana here, but look. How 
much banana's left? A half of a banana, that's right. A half a banana is 
left. And you get that. Oh, you want two things? No, I'm not giving you two 
things. You just wait. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Using this approach, Boyson has demonstrated in 
her chimpanzees some fairly sophisticated capabilities with numbers. 

Ms. BOYSON:  Two, that's right. It's two oranges. Look, I have two 
orange things for you, two orange jellybeans. This is ready. Yeah. Okay. 
Now, look, I've got a half a banana here. Right here's a half. But watch 
what I'm going to do with it. I'm going to only take part of a half. Look 
there, I just have a little piece left. It's one-fourth. That's right, 
one-fourth. Do you want that one-fourth? Okay. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] These chimps are able to extend their 
capabilities beyond the tasks in which they were acquired. In one 
particular experiment, Sheba exceeded all expectations. 

Ms. BOYSON:  Very good. Okay. 

[to interviewer] Sheba's goal was to move from place to place, pay 
attention to how many oranges were there, come back to a starting location 
where her numbers were displayed, and pick the answer that stood for the 
total number of oranges that were hidden. 

[to chimp] Are you paying attention? Let's try a real easy one. All 
you have to do is remember. Yeah, okay. How many would you call that? How 
many is that? How many oranges were in your bin, Shebe? Can you try and 
show me? Four. Right. Have some candy. Go ahead. No, you can have some 
candy. Oh, you got four candies out, too. That was very nice. And you've 
never done that before. 

[to interviewer] Now, remember, this is a task I thought she could 
eventually learn. What we discovered, much to our surprise, was that the 
very first time Sheba had the opportunity to do that, to go look at 
different amounts of oranges in different places, she was able to give us 
the total. How- how did she learn to do this when all we thought we taught 
her to do was to associate Arabic numerals with quantities? Clearly, some 
way out of that experience with simple counting, or simple association, if 
you will, came an emergent capability. 

[to chimp] Bob, we're about to start. I need your cooperation. 
Thank you very much. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] The next test exploits the fact that a chimp 
confronted by two piles of candy will automatically choose the larger one. 
The question is, can their behavior be changed by learning the rules of the 

Ms. BOYSON:  Good, here we go. We'll do another turn. All right. This 
time we'll put this many here, and we'll put this many here. See which- oh, 
you want to pick these first. Okay, well, we'll have to give these six to 
Bobby. Sheba gets three and Bobby's happy. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] The animals are given a choice between two 
different amounts of candy, and the rule is simple. If you pick an amount, 
it goes to your partner, and you get whatever is left over. That's it. 
That's the rule. 

Ms. BOYSON:  Okay. One here. Sheba, which one's for Bob? Point. Oh, Bob 
gets two. Good. All right. There you go. See, you get that one. 

[to interviewer] So if you are aware of the rule, then in order to 
get the most, the first amount you should pick should be the smallest 
amount, right? Because then you get the biggest remainder. 

[to chimp] I'm going to put this many here and this many here. 
Which shall we give away? Oh, we're going to give away these. All right. 
All right. Bob gets four, and Sheba only gets two. 

[to interviewer] They don't get it. They can't do it. They can't 
inhibit selecting the larger array immediately. And so even though it might 
be very distressing, as soon as they do it they understand, `Oh, no, I did 
it again. She's going to get more than me.' And as we explored further, it 
occurred to us to try to substitute the numbers of candies with numbers. 

[to chimp] Two for Bob. 

[to interviewer] From the moment that occurred, the rules unfolded 
as you would expect. 

[to chimp] Which one are you going to pick, this one or this one? 
Now give it to Bobby. You're going to pick two. Okay. We broke that up. 

[to interviewer] And you could literally shift from trial to trial, 
numbers, candy, candy, numbers, and her performance would go up and down. 

[to chimp] Well, how about if you could choose between this and 
this? Bob should get three. Okay. We'll give three to Bob. You're happy, 
aren't you? One, two, three for Bobby. And Sheba, you get six. 

[to interviewer] The introduction of the numbers completely 
releases the animal from that very, very rigid automatic response of 
selecting more, and allows them to use this cultural rule that we had 
established. It was quite extraordinary. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Chimps do acquire complex skills in the wild, 
but this happens slowly, over many years. Some groups have learned to use 
stones as hammers and anvils to crack nuts. In Atlanta, they found that 
Kanzi was able to grasp such a skill with amazing ease by watching a 
demonstration and then trying it for himself in the forest. 

Kanzi was also able to make his own tools after watching a 
demonstration by a visiting archaeologist. He went on to show particular 
insight and creativity in his approach to problem-solving. He was presented 
with this puzzle box, held closed by a strong rope. He quickly caught on to 
the solution, and also found his own way of making a sharp tool by 
throwing, rather than striking the stones together in his hand. His way was 
just as effective. Kanzi's ability to observe tool use and quickly adapt it 
for his own purposes is very significant. This facility is not seen in wild 
chimpanzees, only in those who have been exposed to human culture. Perhaps 
we are seeing in a chimpanzee the same stages of learning that our 
ancestors must have experienced. 

Going back in time from the human species today, we see that some 
three million years ago our ancestor might have looked something like this, 
not very different yet from the way the bonobo chimps look today when they 
walk upright, with hands free. Archaeology can reveal much about our own 
past, but words leave no fossils, and scientists have to depend upon 
comparisons between living species to draw conclusions about how our own 
capacity for language might have come about. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh's findings 
point to an origin of language which goes back several million years, and 
may even predate human evolution. 

To do this sort of work with great apes, you have to become part of 
the group and win their respect. Some rules, like not jumping on the 
researcher's head, have to be enforced, otherwise working with adult apes 
would be too dangerous. Physically, humans are no match for chimpanzees. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  I'm not going to have it. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Here, young Tumuli [sp?] has broken the rule, 
and Sue reprimands her. It is interesting how Kanzi seems to intercede on 
behalf of his younger sister. Kanzi and Panbenisha have had intensive 
contact with humans every day and have been shown to understand human 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  Tumuli, some bark. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Young Tumuli was reared by her mother, and 
shows no comprehension of spoken English. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  Tumuli, Tumuli. That's some bark. Thank you, 
Panbenisha. Tumuli. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Sometimes it seems as though Kanzi is able to 
act as a kind of interpreter, showing his younger sister what the words 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  Tumuli, could you slap Kanzi? Tumuli, you, slap 
Kanzi. You slap Kanzi. You slap Kanzi. Tumuli, could you give Kanzi a hug? 
Tumuli, could you groom Kanzi? He's asking you to groom him. Look, he put 
your hand up there. Isn't that nice? Go ahead, groom Kanzi. Look, he's 
showing you. 

Mr. RUMBAUGH:  Now, more so than ever, the data are so strong that 
every reasonable scientist, every reasonable person should be willing to 
conclude that yes, indeed, the chimpanzee does have not just the appearance 
of language, but does have the competence for language, particularly if it 
is reared from birth as though it is something it is not, namely, a human 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] So the more completely a chimpanzee is immersed 
a child, the researcher seems to transmit the necessary knowledge through 
the everyday process of caregiving. Treating a young ape as a human child 
is natural enough, but extending all the trappings of human culture to 
adult apes presents a number of practical problems. The chimps hand-reared 
by the Gardners over 20 years ago now live at Central Washington 
University, under the care of Roger and Debbi Fouts. 

DEBBI FOUTS, Central Washington University:  They have four rooms and 
five tunnels, and it could be deadly boring, but instead, we try to make 
each day a unique, interesting day. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] These five chimps lived as a social group in 
temporary accommodations on the third floor of the psychology building. 
This is Washoe, the chimp who, 25 years ago, learned sign language in Reno. 
She and the other Gardner chimps still communicate with the researchers in 
sign language. 

Ms. FOUTS:  During the day they have any manner of things to play with. 
They have buckets of Kool-Aid with hoses for straws. They can dip for 
yogurt. They have dress-up clothes. They have brushes, toothbrushes. 

[to chimp] You want what? You want a toothbrush? 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] Ape language researchers now believe that once 
a chimp has become accustomed to a rich human environment, it would be a 
cruel deprivation to lose it. These adult chimps could live for another 30 
years or more. They'll require constant human care and attention. 

RESEARCH ASSISTANT:  They have a lunchtime meal that is served to them. 
They- if they would like some more - it's usually a vegetable kind of a 
soup that has protein in it - they ask for more soup, and then they're 
served more soup. We don't ever just throw bowls in. We don't necessarily 
spoonfeed them. They are offered spoons and dishes to eat. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] English is spoken here, but sign language still 
predominates between chimp and human. Debbi Fouts has published work 
describing the signing between the chimps when no one else is present. 
Students have observed how signs are used by the chimps to initiate 
conversations. Before she was brought here, Washoe had already given birth 
to two infants, neither of whom lived beyond a few weeks. The second baby 
died after being taken away from her for medical treatment. It was Roger 
Fouts's job to make Washoe understand what had happened. 

ROGER FOUTS, Central Washington University:  I had to go back the next 
morning, and she was very depressed, of course, and quite, quite alone, not 
signing with anybody. And so I went in, and she came up to me, her eyes lit 
up. She came up to me and she said, `Baby, holding, holding.' And it was a 
question, she was saying, basically, `Where's my baby?' And I had to tell 
her, I said, `He's dead. He's finished.' And with that, the baby sign 
literally dropped into her lap, her head dropped, and she moved away into 
the corner and stopped signing. 

So we searched and searched and searched, and 10 days after his 
death, we finally found a replacement. It was Lulis [sp?], he was 10 months 
old. The next morning I went in and I signed, `Have baby.' And she 
immediately started signing, `Baby, baby,' getting very excited, `Baby, 
baby, baby, baby, baby,' slapping her hands, bipedal, hair up, extreme 
excitement. And then when she signed, `My baby,' I knew we were in trouble. 
I knew she misunderstood me. So I went out and got him, 10-month-old, he 
was on my chest, came in, and then went in the enclosure with her, and when 
I got about maybe two or three feet away she got a good look at him. And 
all this time she's signing, `Baby, baby, baby, baby,' and she gets a good 
look at him and she just sits down. And then she looks back up, and the she 
signs, `Baby.' Obviously, she'd realized it wasn't her baby any longer, it 
was a strange baby. 

That night she tried to sleep with him like her own baby. She 
always took her to bed with her and slept with her, and so on, and slept 
with him. She tried to do that with Lulis, too, and he would have nothing 
to do with it. He laid down on his own end of the bench, and when she'd 
come he'd move, until finally she let him. And then, at 4:00 in the 
morning, she woke up, went into a bipedal swagger, banged the enclosure and 
signed, `Come, hug,' slapping her hands, making a loud noise, and with that 
he jumped up out of a sound sleep and leapt into the nearest hairy arms 
that were available, which were hers, and she literally engulfed him and 
lay back down. And from that moment on, they were inseparable. 

[to chimp] Washoe, Washoe, hey, hey, what's this? 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] From the time Lulis arrived, the researchers 
deliberately restricted their signing to Washoe, to test whether or not 
Lulis would learn sign language without human intervention. By the time he 
was five, they reported that Lulis had learned a total of 51 signs. 

Mr. FOUTS:  Lulis. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] In May, 1993, the chimps were finally moved out 
of the psychology building into a new specially designed home. 

Mr. FOUTS;  If you want good research, you have to have proper care. 
You owe them that, at least. They're not volunteers, they don't want to do 
this. We're still at the notion of treating them like a hairy test tube, 
and that's an abomination. They are not hairy test tubes. They are 
thinking, feeling, emotional beings with wants, desires in a life, just 
like we do. 

NARRATOR:  [voice-over] As this research proceeds, it could have some 
powerful implications. If chimpanzees show they can acquire human language, 
use it to communicate, and manipulate abstract symbols like words and 
numbers, then the possibility is that chimp and human minds have a great 
deal more in common than we thought. 

Ms. GARDNER:  The uses and misuses to which we put animals certainly 
have to do with lines that we draw differentiating ourselves from them. I'm 
certain that even within human populations, when we behave in a way that is 
not humanitarian, it is because we draw a distinction. `If these people are 
not like me, they don't have the same rights.' By drawing a continuity, I 
think we behave in a more human fashion to all concerned. 

Mr. GARDNER:  The reason why this research has become so controversial 
is that it's part of a very long battle, not the battle over whether human 
beings are descended from chimpanzees, but the battle over whether the same 
laws of nature apply to mice and leopards and chimpanzees and human beings. 
Most of the history of modern science has been a retreat from the notion of 
human speciality, and people more or less have accepted this now about 
blood and bone, but behavior, emotion, cognition, that's very hard. You can 
see the history of science of behavior as a slow, retreating battle with 
separatists drawing the wagons in an ever-tightening circle. And right now 
the last great stand seems to be made over language. 

Dr. SAVAGE-RUMBAUGH:  If we take seriously the fact that the chimpanzee 
has an understanding of language and an ability to produce language, it 
raises all kinds of other questions. Are they conscious? How should we 
treat them? Are they rational? Should they have chimpanzee rights? And 
we're not prepared to answer all of these questions. We don't really know. 

Written and Directed by  JENNY JONES 




Narrator  DON WESCOTT 

Dubbing Mixer  PAUL HARRIS 


For NHK Japan 

Producer  MASARU IKEO 

Director  GENYA NIIO 



For Orlando Productions 

Executive Producer  MIKE TOMLINSON 

For Horizon 


Special Thanks 

Japan Monkey Center 

Jerome Bruner 

Patricia M. Greenfield 

Allegra May 

Chris Smart, Central Washington University 

Media Services, University of Oklahoma 

Language Research Center, Georgia State University 

Primate Cognition Project, Ohio State University 

Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute, 

Central Washington University 


Director of Acquisitions  MELANIE WALLACE 

Associate Producer  LISA MIROWITZ 

Production Assistant  CLARENCE EWING 





Closed Captioning THE CAPTION CENTER 


Post Production Assistant RONA REMAL 

Special Projects Associate CARLA M. DeLUCA 

Post Production Associate JENA ADAMS 

Post Production Supervisor  ALISON M. WHITE