Fakultäten » Mathematisch-naturwissenschaftliche Fakultät » Anthropologisches Institut und Museum » PD Dr. Judith M. Burkart » Burkart

Completed research project

Title / Titel From sharing food to sharing information:
Information donation, coordination, and the evolution of human language
PDF Abstract (PDF, 14 KB)
Summary / Zusammenfassung The vocal communication of the cooperatively breeding callitrichid monkeys is unusual among nonhuman primates, by showing a remarkably large repertoire of vocalizations and unexpected vocal plasticity. This has led to the suggestion that cooperative breeding has the potential to facilitate the evolution of complex vocal systems in primates, including humans.
There are at least two reasons why cooperative breeding in primates may lead to more diverse and more
sophisticated forms of communication: First, the readiness to share food may extend toward a willingness to share information as well. Humans and callitrichid monkeys are unique among primates, in that both evolved cooperative breeding. Cooperative breeders engage in proactive food sharing, i.e. unsolicited food sharing initiated by the possessor. This is common in all human societies and callitrichid monkeys, yet virtually absent in all great ape and most monkey species. The willingness to share food may have been extended toward the willingness to share information, and thus favored the evolution of human language. We will test this hypothesis by assessing information donation in callitrichid marmosets in three contexts, i.e. (i) when communicating about palatable vs.
non-palatable foods, (ii) when warning about predators, and (iii) in potential teaching situations. Each individual’s readiness to share information in the three experimental contexts will then be compared with its readiness to share food under naturalistic situations, to explore to what degree the first may represent a simple extension of the latter.
Second, cooperative breeders may experience more contexts in which they have to coordinate and
negotiate with other group members. Standard coordination problems, in which individuals need to coordinate with group members to achieve a common behavioral outcome, are not unique to callitrichids and can be solved based on simple quorum decisions. Complementary coordination problems, however, where group members have to negotiate the engagement in different, but complementary activities, are more prevalent in callitrichids and require different solutions. To test the hypothesis that complementary coordination problems contributed to the evolution of the callitrichid vocal repertoire, we will compare the role of vocalizations used by marmosets in solving a standard coordination problem (negotiating where the group will sleep during the night) and two complementary coordination
problems (coordinating infant carrying and vigilance). Of particular relevance with regard to language evolution is the extent of flexibility of vocalizations and thus potential voluntary control over them, which will be a focus in all of the proposed experimental contexts.
Publications / Publikationen Weitere Informationen
Project leadership and contacts /
Projektleitung und Kontakte
Dr. Judith Burkart (Project Leader)
Other links to external web pages
Funding source(s) /
Unterstützt durch
Universität Zürich (position pursuing an academic career), SNF (Personen- und Projektförderung)
In collaboration with /
In Zusammenarbeit mit
Yvonne Zürcher, PhD Student, University of Zurich
Eloisa Martins, PhD Student, University of Zurich
Duration of Project / Projektdauer Feb 2014 to Feb 2017