Ex­press Your­self

When pri­mates pull faces they tell you a lot more than words alone could, say Anup Shah, Fiona Rogers and Dr Ben Gar­rod.


Here’s what pri­mates are say­ing when they pull faces

Whether it’s a slightly raised flirty eye­brow, an an­noyed nar­row­ing of the eyes, a fur­rowed brow or an­grily bared teeth, we are a so­cial species heav­ily re­liant on non­ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. But while body lan­guage is hugely im­por­tant, it is our faces that paint the fullest pic­ture. With a large num­ber of mus­cles, our faces can con­vey both ex­treme and sub­tle fa­cial ex­pres­sions, de­pend­ing what we want to say. Group liv­ing is not easy, so it’s cru­cial that as an in­di­vid­ual you’re able to keep oth­ers happy or show them you’re not to be messed with (de­pend­ing on your sta­tus, of course).

Although no other pri­mates can match our ar­ray of fa­cial ex­pres­sions, many dis­play a wide range of emo­tions us­ing their faces – es­pe­cially their mouths, ears and eyes. This is one rea­son why great apes and mon­keys are end­lessly re­ward­ing an­i­mals to watch. Yet we have an of­ten-sub­con­scious ten­dency to at­tribute hu­man be­hav­iour to an­i­mals with­out any sci­en­tific sup­port. An­thro­po­mor­phism, as it is known, causes count­less prob­lems in be­havioural stud­ies, and un­der­mines our broader un­der­stand­ing of an­i­mals. So we have to be care­ful not to see things that aren’t strictly there.

To un­der­stand what’s go­ing in the mind of an orang­utan or lan­gur, it also helps to re­mem­ber that each ex­pres­sion is like a mo­saic of jig­saw pieces. You have to look at them all to­gether to get the com­plete pic­ture. With prac­tice, how­ever, you’ll start pick­ing up the ba­sics of what our rel­a­tives are try­ing to say.

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