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"The origins of gestural imitation: insights from evolution, development and cultural transmission" (GESTRANSCULT)
Start date: 01 Apr 2015, End date: 31 Mar 2017 PROJECT  FINISHED 

"The ability to copy others lies at the heart of our capacity to learn languages, social rules and acquire material culture. While imitation is a core feature of human life, understanding how it evolved, how it develops and the role of cultural transmission are not fully understood. Moreover, most of our understanding comes from studies of tool use, while neglecting the role of imitation in other contexts, namely communicative interactions, such as gesture. Considering the key role gesture itself plays in human communication and in language evolution, understanding the mechanisms underlying gestural imitation is thus essential for assessing how human culture and communication relate. The aim of this project is to conduct a multi-dimensional investigation of gestural imitation from evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives. Combining these complementary angles provides a richer understanding of how communication and culture relate, how they evolved and develop and how transmission processes influence them. To examine the evolution of gestural imitation, the Fellow will examine whether bonobos, an understudied species of great ape, can copy a novel gesture. From evolution to ontogenetic development, the Fellow will next examine the development of gestural imitation by comparing children’s imitation of gestures versus technical actions. Finally, recent research shows that transmission processes shape the structure of language and technologies and so the Fellow will explore how cultural transmission (a form of imitation) shapes gestural structure using diffusion chain experiments. Different types of gestures will be compared to test whether transmission shapes signal structures in language-like ways. The Fellow’s expertise in ape communication complements the Scientist in Charge’s specialism in cultural cognition. Mobility to the UK enables her to consolidate and extend her expertise, to acquire new training and to contribute cutting edge research to the ERA."
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