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Baby Chimpanzee with its motherLanguage evolution: what do chimpanzees have to say? – By Simon Townsend (University of Zürich)

The ability to combine meaningful words together (syntax) is a key defining feature of human language. The evolutionary roots of syntax (how old is syntax?, where did it come from?) are, however, less clear. One powerful way to begin to answer this question is to investigate the communicative abilities of our closest-living relatives, the chimpanzee, with whom we shared a common ancestor approximately 6 million years ago. In this talk I will review work we have conducted over the last few years investigating the presence of syntax in the communication system of chimpanzees. This work is beginning to suggest that the cognitive building blocks underlying human syntax might be much older and likely evolved, prior to the emergence of language itself.