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Ape Language Timeline

The history of ape language studies represents the work of brilliant scientists collaborating with amazing primates in pursuit of some insights that might help us better understand what makes us human. Over all these years, from Yerkes to Rumbaugh and Gua to Kanzi, there has been a common thread running through this timeline — a desire to learn and understand more about these amazing beings so much like us.

1700s – 1800s


French Philosopher, Julien Offray de la Mettrie, is born. He argues that there is no absolute sharp difference between man and animals and further, it is not impossible that an orangutan could speak.


Richard Lynch Garner publishes Gorillas and Chimpanzees which is a record of his studies of primates.


C. Lloyd Morgan publishes Animal Life and Intelligence. He states that animal intellectual abilities should always be explained as simplistically as possible and without reference to higher intellectual thinking. In animal language research, this canon is used not only as a sound precaution against exaggerated conclusions but also as argument for a reductionistic explanation of animal abilities.


Garner publishes The Speech of Monkeys and afterwards goes to Africa to study primates. He is convinced that monkeys communicate through vocalizations and his field trip is one of the first studies of free ranging primates.

The Early 1900s

Around 1900:

The horse Clever Hans makes public appearances. The horse seems to be able to count, but only responded to cues from the trainers. This “Clever-Hans” effect (animals not really understanding what they seem to be doing but only reacting to cues) has been a criticism against research in animal language and cognition. Later research has addressed this question.


Max Rothmann suggests teaching gestural language to chimpanzees to avoid the limitations imposed by the fact that they are not able to make the same sounds as in human language. This approach was to be followed by several scientists for the rest of the century.


William Furness III reports that he taught a female orangutan to say “papa,” “cup” and “th.” It is one of the earliest accounts of an attempt to speak with an ape.


Robert Yerkes, pioneer in research in animal intelligence, suggests in the book Almost Human that apes might be able to learn sign language, which is a crucial development. The book describes his encounter with the chimpanzee Chim.


Noam Chomsky, linguist, is born. He publishes throughout the century and is critical of claims that apes have language ability.


W.N and L.A. Kellogg publish The Ape and the Child. The book reports the results from co-rearing their son Donald and the chimpanzee Gua.


Cathy Hayes publishes The Ape in Our House which reports the work she and her husband did by raising the chimpanzee Viki.



Ann and David Premack attempt to teach chimpanzees to “speak” by using a joystick controlling a generator that produces human-like sounds.


Beatrix and Allen Gardner start to teach the chimpanzee Washoe sign language.


The Premacks start teaching the chimpanzee Sarah to communicate by manipulating plastic symbols.


The Gardners report in Science that Washoe learned to use 85 signs close to those of American Sign Language (ASL).



Duane Rumbaugh initiates the LANA (Language Analog) Project with the chimpanzee Lana.


Louis Herman begins research on the cognitive and linguistic abilities of dolphins at his research station at Hawaii.


Francine Patterson starts teaching sign language to the gorilla Koko.


Herbert Terrace starts a project to teach sign language to the chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky.


David Premack publishes Intelligence in Ape and Man.


Tetsuro Matsuzawa begins working with the chimpanzee Ai, which becomes the first ape-language project in Japan. Publications in journals began to appear from 1982.


Rumbaugh publishes Language Learning by a Chimpanzee about the LANA Project.


Irene Pepperberg starts teaching language to the parrot Alex.


Herman begins research with dolphin Akeakamai.


Terrace et al. give a rather negative conclusion on their work with Nim: the chimpanzee had not learned language but was only imitating the trainers.


Lyn Miles and co-workers start teaching sign language to the 2-year-old orangutan, Chantek. He learned somewhere between 127 and 150 signs by naturalistic training.



Bonobo Kanzi is born. He soon accompanies his adoptive mother Matata to language sessions with Sue Savage-Rumbaugh.


Patterson and E. Linden publish The Education of Koko. Patterson claims that Koko has a vocabulary of 1,000 signs. The Language Research Center, founded by Dr. Duane Rumbaugh and Dr. David Washburn, opens at Georgia State University.


Herman publishes, together with D.G Richards and J.P Wolz the article Comprehension of Sentences By Bottlenosed Dolphins in Cognition. It evaluates the research with Akeakamai and other dolphins.


Savage-Rumbaugh publishes Ape Language: From Conditioned Response to Symbol on her work with the chimpanzees Sherman and Austin.



Savage-Rumbaugh et al. publish the report Language Comprehension in Ape and Child which compares the comprehension of spoken language in Kanzi when he was between 7 1/2 and 8 years old and a human child between 2 and 2 1/2 years of age.


Savage-Rumbaugh and Roger Lewin publish Kanzi: The Ape At the Brink of the Human Mind.


Steven Pinker, severe critic of ape language research, publishes The Language Instinct. The Think Tank opens at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., to explore the themes of tool use, language and social behavior in animals. At Think Tank, Robert Shumaker starts Language Project with six orangutans including Azy and Indah.


Roger Fouts publishes Next of Kin.


Pepperberg publishes The Alex Studies about the abilities of the parrot Alex.

2000 – Present


W.A. Hillix and D.M. Rumbaugh publish Animal Bodies, Human Mind – Ape, Dolphin and Parrot Language Skills.


William Fields, Savage-Rumbaugh and Pär Segerdahl publish Kanzi’s Primal Language, on the cultural initiation of Kanzi into language.

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