The headlines are saying that “Chimps shake their heads to mean ‘no’ just like humans” with the implication that it may “reflect a primitive precursor of the human ‘no’ headshake,” according to Christel Schneider of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Schneider spotted “preventive head shaking” from studying tapes of chimpanzees and bonobos in six European zoos.
I am shaking my head “no” to this wild assertion, and I am hopeful that Christel Schneider is, too, since the last line in the article indicates that she is aware that a shake of the head can mean “yes” in some cultures.
So why even talk about “a primitive precursor”? Precursor of what?
I had my first lesson about the arbitrary–not hard-wired–meaning of head shaking when I attended a classical Indian music concert as a college student in Syracuse, New York. During the performance, I was alarmed at seeing so many people in the audience shaking their heads in what I thought was a “no” message. They seemed to despair at the quality of the music. I felt sorry for the performers. After the performance, I learned that the head-shaking members of the audience were, in fact, deeply appreciative of the quality of the performance. Their side-to-side horizontal head movement meant, “yes, yes, wonderful, wah, wah.”
My second lesson is one that I probably share with thousands of other visitors to India, especially those lucky enough to be invited for a home meal. If, as an innocent American, you shake your head “no” when offered second helpings, you will find your hostess heaping yet more food on your plate. Again and again, because your hostess interprets your side-to-side head shaking as saying “yes, yes, more, please.”
The chimpanzees and bonobos living in European zoos would be at high risk for weight gain in India. Just like me.
Image: “Bonobo”, from flickr user tim_ellis, licensed with Creative Commons.