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Speaking Bonobo

Great Ape Trust of Iowa

This article comes from the Smithsonian and includes a link to a video which vividly portrays Kanzi’s amazing intelligence. Please read this, watch the video and tell me what you think. I guarantee you a New Year’s mind-boggling experience. While I firmly believe that man was made in the image of God and did not spring from a lesser life, God also created other magnificent and highly intelligent creatures. These apes are phenomenal.

Speaking Bonobo

Bonobos have an impressive vocabulary, especially when it comes to snacks

By Paul Raffaele


To better understand bonobo intelligence, I traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, to meet Kanzi, a 26-year-old male bonobo reputedly able to converse with humans. When Kanzi was an infant, American psychologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh tried to teach his mother, Matata,
to communicate using a keyboard labeled with geometric symbols. Matata never really got the hang of it, but Kanzi—who usually played in the background, seemingly oblivious, during his mother’s teaching sessions—picked up the language.Savage-Rumbaugh and her colleagues kept adding symbols to Kanzi’s keyboard and laminated sheets of paper. First Kanzi used 6 symbols, then 18, finally 348. The symbols refer to familiar objects (yogurt, key, tummy, bowl), favored activities (chase, tickle), and even some concepts considered fairly abstract (now, bad).

By Shirley Buxton

Still full of life and ready to be on the move, Shirley at 84 years old feels blessed to have lots of energy and to be full of optimism. She was married to Jerry for 63 years, and grieves yet at his death in August of 2019. They have 4 children, 13 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren...all beautiful and highly intelligent--of course. :)

7 replies on “Speaking Bonobo”

Hello again, Father Joe. Thank you for these very interesting comments and especially for the phenomenal account of the great teacher, Washoe. I would love to see her.

It all puzzles me, too. Where though, in scripture, is the teaching that human language is an indication of our immortal souls?

A complex and beautiful world is this place in which we live. Many questions abound.



Washoe the chimpanzee learned over 800 words in sign language. When the project was closed she was sent to live with other primates. Researchers who visited her years later found that she could still communicate with them. However, what shocked them was that her child knew over 300 words and also began to speak to them. Washoe had tried teaching the sign language (their vocal abilities for human words are limited) to other chimpanzees!!! She is still alive and resides at Central Washington University today.

Similar efforts were directed toward dolphins. They were given large computer consoles (water tight) with big colored buttons depicting symbols they could push with their noses. While the language syntax was peculiar to human ears, they quickly mastered using the keyboards to communicate. There has been speculation that voice synthesizers might give them almost human abilities at language. Their brains are about the size of human beings and they show remarkable intelligence.

It was also thought for a long time that Parrots, with fairly small brains, only mimicked human speech, as they do sounds in the wild. However, there has been much controversy over a number of birds, the primary one over a century old, that seems to understand the different meanings between words it speaks. It will ask for crackers, seeds, water and chide the researchers for bringing the wrong items, or just because he is in a mood to mock.

It is all very interesting, Shirley, if a bit puzzling for me as a Christian. While rudimentary communication in animals and insects is non-problematic; human-like language is supposed to be an expression of our rational nature and the fact that we have immortal souls.



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