Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Anniversary: Literate Ape

On this day in 1980, Kanzi, the world's most literate non-human, was born in Atlanta, Georgia at Emory University. Kanzi is a male Bonobo (the species was formerly known as the pygmy chimpanzee). Bonobos are endangered and exist in the wild only in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bonobos are largely unknown but extraordinary creatures - they recognize themselves in mirrors, make and use tools, and have learned to communicate with symbols. Scientists disagree on the degree to which bonobos appreciate language fundamentals.

Kanzi is perhaps the most studied of bonobos. Kanzi means "treasure" in Swahili and he has certainly lived up to his name. He understands an extensive catalog of symbols and he does some extraordinary things. Primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has studied Kanzi throughout his life and gave the below TED talk in 2004 that features him prominently. I don't want to give too much away, but roasted marshmallows and golf carts are involved. It's pretty remarkable stuff. Happy 28th Kanzi. (back)