01 November 2007

RIP: Washoe

ca 1965 - 30 Oct 2007

ZUI this article from KTAR.com:
Washoe, a female chimpanzee said to be the first non-human to acquire human language, has died of natural causes at the research institute where she was kept.

Washoe, who first learned a bit of American Sign Language in a research project in Nevada, had been living on Central Washington University's Ellensburg campus since 1980. Her keepers said she had a vocabulary of about 250 words, although critics contended Washoe and some other primates learned to imitate sign language, but did not develop true language skills.

She died Tuesday night, according to Roger and Deborah Fouts, co-founders of The Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute on the campus. She was born in Africa about 1965.

And this from the New York Times:
She spent her early years playing in the backyard of a small house in Reno, Nev., learning American Sign Language from the scientists who adopted her, and by age 5 she had mastered enough signs to capture the world’s attention and set off a debate over nonhuman primates’ ability to learn human language that continues to this day.


Scientists had tried without success to teach nonhuman primates to imitate vocal sounds when R. Allen Gardner and Beatrix T. Gardner, cognitive researchers, adopted the 10-month-old chimp from military scientists in 1966. The Gardners, skeptical that other primates could adequately speak human words, taught Washoe American Sign Language, encouraging her gestures until she made signs that were reliably understandable.

A 1969 report by the Gardners on Washoe’s progress “opened up the entire field: it was absolutely frontier-breaking work,” said Duane Rumbaugh, scientist emeritus at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, a research center.

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