Happy birthday Kanzi!

Today Kanzi turns 30. Kanzi isn’t a human being according to the definition accepted by most people who belong to the species homo sapiens, in fact he is a bonobo, an ape scientifically called pan paniscus. The bonobo is very similar to the chimpanzee so it’s one of homo sapiens’ cousins.

Kanzi was born at Yerkes field station at Emory University and moved to the Language Research Center at Georgia State University where he was adopted by Matata, one of the dominant females of the group of bonobos brought from Africa in the ’70s to study their skills and the differences with chimpanzees.

Researcher Sue Savage-Rumbaugh had tried to teach Matata a language that could be used by both bonobos and humans: to bonobos it’s impossible to reproduce all the sounds of human languages so researchers created a language made of symbols called lexigrams which could also be attached to a keyboard after the adoption of computers.

Matata didn’t seem particularly interested in communicating through lexigrams but in a moment when she was separated from Kanzi, who had assisted to the lessons, the young male spontaneously started using this language.

Obviously at that point reasearchers focused their efforts on Kanzi, who became a sort of linguist among bonobos, as he showed he could understand hundreds of lexigrams indicating them correctly when a researchers said the corresponding spoken word. Kanzi also learned to understand and create complete phrases and even some American Sign Language watching videos of another ape famous among scientists, Koko the gorilla.

Kanzi’s skills go beyond languages: for example the anthropologist Nick Toth taught him to produce stone tools of the kind that was created by hominids who lived two millions years ago.

Kanzi enjoys videogames and he clearly understood how to play Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man.

It would be easy to say that Kanzi is more human than many people who belong to the species homo sapiens. There are people who believe they’re a special creature of an almighty deity, I just humbly wish my cousin Kanzi a happy birthday.

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