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Kanzi (born October 28, 1980), also known by the lexigram 20px, is a male bonobo who has been featured in several studies on great ape language. According to Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a primatologist who has studied the bonobo throughout her life, Kanzi has exhibited advanced linguistic aptitude.[1][2][3]


Born to Lorel and Bosandjo at Yerkes field station at Emory University and moved to the Language Research Center at Georgia State University, Kanzi was stolen and adopted shortly after birth by a more dominant female, Matata. As an infant, Kanzi accompanied Matata to sessions where she was taught language through keyboard lexigrams, but showed little interest in the lessons.

It was a great surprise to researchers then when one day, while Matata was away, Kanzi began competently using the lexigrams, becoming not only the first observed ape to have learned aspects of language naturalistically rather than through direct training, but also the first observed bonobo to appear to use some elements of language at all.[2][3] Within a short time, Kanzi had mastered the ten words that researchers had been struggling to teach his adoptive mother, and he has since learned more than two hundred more. When he hears a spoken word (through headphones, to filter out nonverbal clues), he points to the correct lexigram.

[2][3] According to a Discover article, Kanzi is an accomplished tool user.[4]

Kanzi, his mother, and sister now live at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa. Kanzi is the alpha male of the resident community of Bonobos. His mother, Matata, is the chief leader (in the matriachal society of bonobos, a male's position is primarily determined by the position of the females he is related to). According to the Smithsonian magazine, Kanzi "has the mien of an aging patriarch - he's balding and paunchy with serious, deep-set eyes."[5] This description is confirmed by a full-page color photograph of Kanzi in the March 2008 National Geographic, and a full-page black-and white photograph in Time magazine.[6]

Teco, son of Kanzi, was born June 1, 2010.[7] Teco has been exhibiting behaviors that may indicate he has a form of Autism.[8]

Examples of Kanzi's behavior

The following are highly suggestive anecdotes, not experimental demonstrations. As with all anecdotal accounts, the strength of conclusions drawn must be limited, as compared with well-controlled experimental evidence.

  • In an outing in the Georgia woods, Kanzi touched the symbols for "marshmallows" and "fire." Susan Savage-Rumbaugh said in an interview that, "Given matches and marshmallows, Kanzi snapped twigs for a fire, lit them with the matches and toasted the marshmallows on a stick."[9]
  • Paul Raffaele, at Savage-Rumbaugh's request, performed a Maori War Dance for the Bonobos. This dance includes thigh-slapping, chest-thumping, and hollering. Almost all the bonobos present interpreted this as an aggressive display, and reacted with loud screams, tooth-baring, and pounding the walls and floor. All but Kanzi, who remained perfectly calm; he then communicated with Savage-Rumbaugh using bonobo vocalizations; Savage-Rumbaugh understood these vocalizations, and said to Raffaele, "he'd like you to do it again just for him, in a room out back, so the others won't get upset." Later, a private performance in another room was successfully, peacefully, and happily carried out.[9]
  • Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has observed Kanzi in communication to his sister. In this experiment, Kanzi was kept in a separate room of the Great Ape Project and shown some yogurt. Kanzi made some vocalizations which his sister could hear; his sister, Panbanisha, who could not see the yogurt, then pointed to the lexigram for yogurt, suggesting those vocalizations may have meaning.[9]
  • Kanzi's accomplishments also include tool use and tool crafting. Kanzi is an accomplished stone tool maker and can flake Oldowan style cutting knives. He learned this skill from Dr. Nick Toth, who is an anthropologist with the Stone Age Institute in Bloomington, Indiana. The stone knives Kanzi creates are very sharp and can cut animal hide and thick ropes.
  • In one demonstration shown on the television show Champions of the Wild,[10] Kanzi was shown playing the arcade game Pac-Man and understanding how to beat it.


Although Kanzi learned to communicate using a keyboard with lexigrams, Kanzi also picked up some American Sign Language from watching videos of Koko the gorilla, who communicates using sign language to her keeper Penny Patterson; Savage-Rumbaugh did not realize Kanzi could sign until he signed "You, Gorilla, Question" to anthropologist Dawn Prince-Hughes, who had previously worked closely with gorillas.[11]

Kanzi cannot speak vocally in a manner that is comprehensible to most humans as Bonobo chimps have different vocal tracts from humans, which makes them incapable of reproducing most of the vocal sounds humans make. At the same time, it was noticed that every time Kanzi communicated with humans with specially designed graphic symbols, he also produced some vocalization. It was later found out that Kanzi was actually producing the articulate equivalent of the symbols he was indicating, or, in other words, he was "saying" (articulating) these words, although in a very high pitch and with distortions.[12]

See also


  1. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named kanzibonobo
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Savage-Rumbaugh, S., & Lewin, R., (1994). Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind, Wiley.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Mitani, J. (1995). Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind. Scientific American 272 (6).
  4. (September 1994). Ape at the Brink. Discover.
  5. Raffaele, Smithsonian, November 2006.
  6. Time, August 16, 2010.
  7. TIME, August 16, 2010.
  8. "Autism in Another Ape," by Nina Bai, Scientific American Mind, September/October 2011, page 11.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Raffaele, P (November 2006). Speaking Bonobo.
  10. Season 4, Episode 3. Screened 10/30/2000
  11. Prince-Hughes, Dawn (1987). Songs of the Gorilla Nation, Harmony.
  12. Greenspan, S. I., and S. G. Shanjer. 2004. The first idea: How symbols, language and intelligence evolved from our primate ancestors to modern humans. Da Capo Press.

Further reading

  • Joseph, John E., Nigel Love & Talbot J. Taylor (2001). Landmarks in Linguistic Thought II: The Western Tradition in the 20th Century (London & New York: Routledge), chapter 15: "Kanzi on Human Language".
  • de Waal, Frans (2005). Our Inner Ape, ISBN 1-57322-312-3.
  • Raffaele, Paul (2006), "The Smart and Swinging Bonobo", Smithsonian, Volume 37, Number 8 (November 2006—a general article about bonobos).

External links

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