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Kanzi (born October 28, 1980) is a male bonobo at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa,[1] one of two main subjects of the work of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and her colleagues. Kanzi's abilities, particularly in tool use and communication, have attracted significant attention in primatology, anthropology, psychology, cognitive science and linguistics.

Social awareness

Kanzi showed remarkable social awareness by understanding that other apes did not have the same training as himself and attempting to teach them. Their human caretakers gestured actions to his sister, Tamuli, that she was supposed to perform, but she did not understand. Kanzi attempted to make Tamuli understand by pantomiming the actions she was supposed to and grabbing her hand in an effort to physically make her perform the signed activities. She did not comprehend what he was trying to tell her. Kanzi showed remarkable social awareness by understanding that other apes did not have the same training as himself and attempting to teach them.[2]


Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has worked with two bonobos - along with chimpanzees, one of the two great ape species representing the closest living relatives to humans, most famously with Kanzi, who is claimed to be able to communicate linguistically using symbols on a keyboard.[3] Specifically, Savage-Rumbaugh has claimed that Kanzi's abilities reach and may even exceed those of a two-and-a-half-year-old child, and constitute a "simple language".[4]

Kanzi is not only a tool maker but he also specializes in the use of language. No ape has ever reached the same cognitive level of an adult human in language, tool making, mathematics, aesthetics, or music. Kanzi was raised in captivity, thus he has been surrounded by humans his entire life. If a wild Bonobo were to be placed in his situation, it would not be as adept. That is to say, wild Bonobos do not match up to their captive counterparts.

Kanzi was raised in a language-rich environment and has been taught language through the use of lexigrams (pictures that in this case have nothing to do with what they stand for). When the lexigram key is pressed the word it symbolizes is said in English by a computerized voice. Kanzi and his sister Panbanisha are both experts at finding the word they wish to use, however phrases that are comprised of more than one are rare. Thus sentences do not happen, but asking a question and holding a simple conversation is not above these Bonobos.[5]

The cognitive scientist Steven Pinker strongly criticised the position of Savage-Rumbaugh and others in his award-winning The Language Instinct,[6] arguing that Kanzi and other non-human primates failed to grasp the fundamentals of language.

Syntax and recursion

Savage-Rumbaugh's own work argues for the aforementioned "simple language" in Kanzi's communication, but it also claims that the bonobo exhibited evidence of complex syntax, including recursion. For example, she and her co-authors interpret Kanzi's 77%-correct response rate to sentences such as "Get the ball that's in the cereal" as evidence that the ape understood syntactic relationships (a position rejected elsewhere[7]), though they note that Kanzi did less well on grammatically simpler sentences.[8] Furthermore, the same work argues that Kanzi "could comprehend both the semantics and the syntactic structure of quite unusual sentences", despite the previous reference to "simple language".[9] Savage-Rumbaugh's results also allowed for interpretation: on the instruction to "Put some water on the carrot", Kanzi threw the vegetable outside, which Savage-Rumbaugh assessed as 'correct' because it was raining heavily at the time.[10] This criticism, together with alternative explanations for Kanzi's apparent ability (e.g. understanding of words, but not sentences; only one likely interpretation of the sentence, etc.) comprise many of the objections from linguists and cognitive scientists, who would argue that language is not reducible to behavior alone;[11] sympathetic voices have also called for more robust theoretical work.[12] A possible compromise position, based on Derek Bickerton's work with creoles, is to claim that Kanzi exhibits a rudimentary protolanguage that may resemble the earliest linguistic system of humans themselves, before complex syntax emerged.[13]


  1. Great Ape Trust: 'Meet Kanzi'.
  2. de Waal (2005). See also The Times: 'Contact your inner ape to understand the best of humanity,' October 30, 2005 (book extract from De Waal).
  3. Savage-Rumbaugh, Murphy, Sevcik, Brakke, Williams & Rumbaugh (1993); Savage-Rumbaugh & Lewin (1995).
  4. Savage-Rumbaugh, Shanker & Taylor (1998: 63; 69; 77; 191).
  5. Rumbaugh, Duane M.; Washburn, David A. (2006). Primate Perspectives on Behavior And Cognition (Decade of Behavior). American Psychological Association (APA). ISBN 1-59147-422-1. 
  6. Pinker (1994: 335-346).
  7. See Kirby (2000: 191-192), who argues that this sentence could be reduced to the non-recursive Get the ball from the cereal if Kanzi lacks functional categories (i.e. syntax which allows, for example, embedded clauses).
  8. Savage-Rumbaugh et al. (1998: 63; 72).
  9. Savage-Rumbaugh et al. (1998: 98).
  10. Savage-Rumbaugh et al. (1998: 69).
  11. e.g. Wallman (1992: 103); Kirby (2000: 191).
  12. e.g. Cowley & Spurrett (2003).
  13. Corballis (2002: 36-37).