January 28, 2018

Pointing the Finger

The first symbols were probably gestures. Chimpanzees and other non-human primates make extensive use of gestures, even though they don’t talk. Some primate species evolved tendencies for particular gestures—for example, chest pounding in gorillas. Researchers at Emery University have identified more than thirty gestures used by chimpanzees and bonobos. These include hand waving, arm raising, reaching out, and dabbing with a finger. The apes use these gestures to communicate when they want food, when they want to play, when they want to be groomed, and when
they want sex.

Sometimes the apes invent new gestures. “We have one group, just one group, where the chimpanzees hold hands together above their heads when they groom each other with the other hand,” said Emery researcher Frans de Waal. “It’s a very strange posture. It was developed by one female named Georgia, and she introduced her family members to it, and now all the chimps in the group are doing it.”

Human gestures must have originated through similar acts of cultural transmission. Many of our common gestures originated in prehistory with no record of how or why they took on the meanings they have today. Take the handshake. It is commonly believed that the handshake grew out of a practice of checking for concealed weapons—and while that might be true, there is no historical evidence to support the claim. By the fifth century BC, when the earliest known depictions of handshakes appeared in ancient Greece, people were already shaking hands just like modern people do.

The upraised middle finger has been a sexually charged gesture of contempt since at least the times of the ancient Greeks. In The Clouds, a comedy of the fifth century BC, a character gives the finger to Socrates. The ancient Romans referred to the gesture as digitus impudicus, meaning “the impudent finger.”

Common gestures whose origins are lost to history include the hug, the kiss, the bow, the head nod, the hand wave, the wink, applause, and (fittingly) the shoulder shrug.

Other gestures have more recent origins. The salute grew out of a tradition in the British military requiring soldiers remove their hats in the presence of superior officers. In the eighteenth century, as headgear became more cumbersome, it became acceptable to merely pantomime the removal of a hat. 

The thumbs-up gesture for approval traces back to the medieval custom of using a thumbprint to seal business transactions. Over time, the upraised thumb came to be associated with agreement and harmony. (Contrary to the Hollywood movie cliché, the thumbs-up gesture was not used to spare the lives of ancient Roman gladiators.)

Crossed fingers originated with the early Christians, who would cross their fingers to invoke the power of the cross. Over time the gesture became a secular wish for luck.

Making the “V” sign with the back of the hand was a profane gesture that meant essentially “up yours” until World War II, when the gesture got turned around and its meaning was changed to “victory.” During the Vietnam War, the counterculture changed the meaning to “peace.”

The high five originated on a recent American sports team, though which team is a matter of controversy. It was either the 1977 Los Angeles Dodgers, the 1979 Louisville basketball team, or the women’s volleyball teams of the 1960s.

If you’ve ever played charades, you know that it’s usually easier to just come out and say what you mean. Human communication evolved primarily through speech, rather than gesture, because speech frees the hands and eyes to do other things. You can talk while holding a tool or a weapon or a baby. You can talk in the dark or to someone who isn’t looking at you. Early humans created symbols in the form of sounds—which is to say, they created words.

Next: The Ten Thousand Things

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