Chimpanzee pant-hooting, termiting, and gesture

Here are a few items of linguistic interest from In the Shadow of Man, Jane Goodall’s account of her pioneering study of chimpanzee behaviour in Tanzania in the 1960s. I featured In the Shadow of Man in a bookmash a couple of years ago, but that was before I had read it.

Jane van Lawick Goodall - in the shadow of man - book coverTo describe chimpanzees’ practice of fishing for termites (with a twig, vine, grass stem, straw, or finger), Goodall uses various conventional phrases, such as fishing for termites and termite-fishing, which seems the default. But she also verbs termite itself, just as we’ve long done with fish:

As the termite season wore on there could be no doubt that Flo’s older offspring were kidnaping Flint with the deliberate intent of getting their mother to stop, at least for the time being, her endless termiting. […]

Fifi, on the other hand, was a keen termite fisher, and when Flint, wanting to play with his sister, jumped onto her and scattered the insects from her grass stem, she was obviously irritated. Over and over she pushed him away roughly. Fifi still played with Flint frequently herself when she was not termiting . . .

Termites taste a little like cashew nuts, apparently:

A more common phrase in Goodall’s book is pant-hoot, used as both verb and noun. This is a self-descriptive term for a loud vocalisation frequently made by chimps. The following excerpt is from the book’s appendix on chimpanzee facial expressions and calls:

Pant-hoots are a series of hoo sounds connected by audible intakes of breath, gradually getting louder and usually ending with waa sounds also connected by panting intakes of breath. . . . Pant-hoots are given in a variety of contexts, especially when chimpanzees arrive at a food source, join another group, or cross from one valley to another. Pant-hoots serve as a contact call between spread-out individuals or groups of individuals; sometimes chimpanzees peacefully feeding in a tree will give this call, at which another group, some distance away, may respond. Quite often when groups of chimpanzees are sleeping within earshot of each other they may exchange pant-hoots during the night, particularly when there is a bright moon.

I love Goodall’s own rendition of pant-hooting:


Finally, a passage on the meaning and importance of chimpanzees’ greeting gestures for establishing and maintaining their relative positions in the social hierarchy of a chimp community – a structure Goodall describes as ‘extremely complex’. She also translates a couple of these gestures:

The members who compose the community move about in constantly changing associations, and yet, though the society seems to be organized in such a casual manner, each individual knows his place in the social structure – knows his status in relation to any other chimpanzee he may chance upon during the day. Small wonder there is such a wide range of greeting gestures, and that most chimpanzees do greet each other when they meet after a separation. Figan, going up to an older male with a submissive pant-grunt, is probably affirming that he remembers quite well the little aggressive incident of two days before when he was thumped soundly on the back. “I know you are dominant. I admit it; I remember” is probably the sort of communication inherent in his submissive gesturing. “I acknowledge your respect; I shall not attack you just now” is implicit in the gentle patting movement of Mike’s hand as he greets a submissive female.

Bear this in mind the next time you encounter a handshake that’s either trying too hard or not trying at all.


4 Responses to Chimpanzee pant-hooting, termiting, and gesture

  1. Oisín says:

    Aha! Will Self used pant-hoot loads in Great Apes (both as a verb and a noun), and I figured he had coined it. Plenty of social hierarchy thumping, grooming and sexing too.

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