Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Exploring Great Ape Games

Speculating on early developments in the evolution of humor.

Key points

  • To get a sense of humor’s evolution, we can look to modern apes as proxies for the last common ancestor.
  • The behavior of chimps, bonobos, and gorillas involved in sign language studies are especially revealing.
  • Each of these species has used humor to highlight the vulnerabilities of others and to create and play games.
Kevin Malik/Pexels
Source: Kevin Malik/Pexels

In a prior post, I discussed how tickling behavior in the modern Great Apes very likely echoes the first and simplest form of humor used by the last common ancestor (LCA) of apes and humans. It’s worth speculating whether the LCA may have had other ways and reasons to intentionally solicit the laughter of their brethren. We can draw inferences from captive apes whose behaviors are often closely monitored, especially those participating in ape language studies.

Indicating Shared Vulnerabilities

Try to teach chess to a hyperactive 2-year-old child and you will probably get a sense of what it’s like to teach sign language to a gorilla, chimp, or bonobo. For obvious reasons, instruction is tempered by frequent bouts of physical play and, because these students have access to toys and language, they can also participate in non-contact playfulness.

Koko, a female lowland gorilla raised and instructed by Francine Patterson (Patterson and Linden, 1981), had an exchange with one of her human mentors in which Koko asked for a drink in her nose, then eye, then ear (while Koko laughed), then in her mouth (she laughed more and moved away). Koko also made up nonsensical word combinations such as “elephant gorilla” when referring to herself. According to Patterson, “Koko’s humor can also be remarkably unsophisticated, and if a prank gets a rise out of someone, Koko is apt to repeat it. After noting with pleasure that blowing an insect on me produced a shriek and a jump, Koko did it again, this time laughing.”

Other examples included Koko sneaking up on or chasing someone with a plastic alligator, with the victim obviously playing along, and acting in ways that were contrary to the requests made by her instructors. “Humor, then,” suggests Patterson, “is another of the dividends from the gorilla’s stubborn streak. It is one part of the pattern Koko spontaneously introduces to express her independence and enliven the dull routine of schooling.”

There were other instances of Koko emphasizing the vulnerabilities of others, including expressing her displeasure in a way we can all understand—through insult. Mike was one human caretaker at whom she often directed harsh comments (for example, “Koko know Mike toilet”), and she would also draw from a list of “names” when she was disappointed or tired of working, calling people “nut,” “devil,” “dirty,” “fake,” “rotten-lousy,” “stubborn-donkey,” “stupid,” “toilet,” and “trouble.” A common chimp, Washoe, and orangutan, Chantek, both involved in sign-language studies, also used “dirty” as an adjective for bad things (Fouts, 1997; Miles, 1990; Miles and Harper, 1994).

Another interesting example of prank-like “equalizing” humor comes from bonobos, this time in a zoo environment. Primatologist Frans de Waal (de Waal, 1997) described an exhibition area surrounded by a moat that was intentionally left dry; a chain was lowered down to provide constant access. “If the dominant male, Vernon, disappeared into the moat, however, Kalind sometimes quickly pulled up the chain. He would then look down at Vernon with an open-mouthed play face while slapping the side of the moat.”

Playing Games

Given the opportunity, apes also appear to have the ability to participate in, and even help create, games. Although the following examples don’t result in ape laughter, they typify activities (and feelings) that humans would generally recognize as amusing.

One was played out by a bonobo involved in a language study and his human mentors, although an activity likely engaged in by wild apes as well. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh (Savage-Rumbaugh and Lewin, 1994) describes a hide-and-seek routine where a young Kanzi has access to a favorite retreat within a dense thicket of vegetation:

Kanzi would…use this opportunity to vanish quietly, usually no more than four to ten feet away, but nonetheless out of sight. We would call and call and pretend we could not see him. He thought it great fun that he had eluded us and would sometimes sit quietly under a bush for ten or fifteen minutes before showing himself.

Ebru Akal/Pexels
Source: Ebru Akal/Pexels

Washoe also appeared to enjoy soliciting the laughter and amusement of her human companions, recounts Roger Fouts (Fouts, 1997):

Washoe loved to teach [Fouts’ daughters] Rachel and Hillary games. In one of them, Washoe would say ‘GIVE ME SHOE’, and the girls would line up their feet in front of her. Then Washoe tickled the toe of one shoe until that person laughed like a chimp. Then she’d move to the next foot until she was playing their feet like xylophones and the girls were hysterical. Washoe loved this game so much that she wouldn’t let the other chimps play it.

Thus, we appear to have anecdotal evidence to suggest at least three of the great apes have the capacity for humor more advanced than simple tickling or chasing. They can adopt the perspective of others, recognize and even highlight vulnerabilities, and react with expressions of amusement. As with their capacity to acquire human language skills, these gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees appear able to use and comprehend humor at about the same level as a 2- or 3-year-old human child.

Orangutans likely possess similar abilities. We know they, like the other great apes, can adopt the viewpoint of others because they exhibit purposeful deception (Russon, 2000). It may simply be that exhibitions of humor in a minimally social ape such as the orangutan just have not been observed (or, at least, recorded) in the wild and only rarely seen in captivity. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of instances where human-reared orangutans responded to the antics of their human “family” members with laughter or engaged in simple forms of humor.

Of course, there’s no way to be certain the LCA possessed a capacity to appreciate non-tickling humor. It could have developed more recently—in other words, independently—in gorillas, chimps, bonobos, and humans. What seems clear is that, in all likelihood, our human lineage has had at least a rudimentary sense of humor for millions of years. The need to interact with, cooperate with, and sometimes rebuke others in our group existed early in our evolutionary history when simple varieties of humor were used to reconcile, unify, and sympathize, as well as to equalize, slight, and even shun.

This post was drawn from Chapter Eight of Why We Laugh: A New Understanding.

© John Charles Simon


de Waal, F. B. M. (1997). Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape. University of California Press.

Fouts, R. (1997). Next of Kin: What Chimpanzees Have Taught Me About Who We Are. New York: William Morrow and Company.

Miles, H. L. (1990). The Cognitive Foundations for Reference in a Signing Orangutan. In S. T. Parker and K. Gibson (Eds.), “Language” and Intelligence in Monkeys and Apes: Comparative Developmental Perspectives. New York: Cambridge UP.

Miles, H. L. W. and S. E. Harper. (1994). “Ape Language” Studies and the Study of Human Language Origins. In D. Quiatt and J. Itani (Eds.), Hominid Culture in Primate Perspective. University Press of Colorado [referring to Linden, E. (1981). Apes, Men, and Language. New York: Penguin Books.

Patterson, F. and E. Linden. (1981). The Education of Koko. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Russon, A. E. (2000). Orangutans: Wizards of the Rain Forest. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books Ltd.

Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S. and R. Lewin. (1994). Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Simon, J. C. (2008). Why We Laugh: A New Understanding. Starbrook Publishing.

van Lawick-Goodall, J. (1971). In the Shadow of Man. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

More from John Charles Simon
More from Psychology Today