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In 1966, This Chimpanzee Became The First Animal To Learn ASL, And She Learned Over 250 Signs

DZiegler - stock.adobe.com - illustrative purposes only, not the actual chimp

Humans have always had a fascination with apes since they are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. The connection between humans and apes has been the subject of numerous studies as researchers attempt to understand the evolution of language.

When scientists failed to teach spoken language to primates, they tried to communicate with them through American Sign Language (ASL) instead. This proved to be successful with Washoe the chimpanzee, who learned over 250 signs.

Washoe was born in Africa sometime in September 1965. She was captured after her mother was killed by a hunter. Afterward, she was then sold to a dealer and brought to the United States for the Air Force.

A husband and wife duo, Drs. Allen and Beatrix Gardener adopted Washoe for their research on June 21, 1966. The couple were cognitive researchers and raised the chimpanzee in their back garden.

Washoe became the first animal to learn human sign language. They taught her sign language in a similar way that would’ve been used to teach a deaf child. Her name comes from Washoe County, Nevada, where she lived until she was five years old.

Washoe is a word from a Native American tribe that means “people.” Her name can be signed by forming a “W” with three fingers and flicking an ear with the “W.”

In 1980, Washoe was taken to the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. She joined four other chimpanzees named Loulis, Tatu, Moja, and Dar. It is said that Washoe actually taught Loulis some signs.

After just eight days, Loulis used his first sign, marking the first time that a chimpanzee was able to learn sign language from another primate.

Washoe’s sign language skills also became a hot topic of debate among researchers. Some believed that she was only copying the signs she was shown. They argued that she did not have a real understanding of the language.

DZiegler – stock.adobe.com – illustrative purposes only, not the actual chimp

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