Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Its been a bad year for animal communication. First Alex the Grey Parrot suddenly dies, now the famous sign-language-using chimp Washoe has also died Tuesday night of the flu.

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. She had a vocabulary of about 250 words.

Washoe also taught sign language to three younger chimps who remain at the institute, Central Washington spokeswoman Becky Watson said. They are Tatu, 31, Loulis, 29, and Dar, 31.

Washoe was the only chimpanzee at the institute born in Africa and was the matriarch of the chimpanzee family. She was named for Washoe County, Nev., where she lived with Drs. Allen and Beatrix Gardner of the University of Nevada, Reno, from 1966 to 1970.

Allen and Beatrice Gardner set out to teach Washoe American Sign Language in 1967, in the wake of many other failed attempts by other scientists to do similar things, by using chimp’s already dramatic body language. When Washoe would make a random gesture that resembled a ‘sign,’ the Gardners would shape the gesture and reward variations of it until it became the completed sign. These would become associated with actions, and eventually the Gardners realized that Washoe could pick up signs without the elaborate formation/reward stage. Washoe reliably used 132 signs–“reliably” meant that 3 different observers saw Washoe use the sign in 3 seperate occasions, and it had been seen for 15 days in a row.

The Washow project is probably the first (successful) experimental instance of humans teaching complex arbitrary communication to another species. Washoe spontaneously taught her son how to use sign language, another first.


  1. #1 Homie Bear
    November 1, 2007

    That’s really sad. Peter Fouts also worked with Washoe and wrote an amazing book about the experience in Next of Kin.

  2. #2 HP
    November 1, 2007

    “Baby in my drink.”

    RIP, Washoe

  3. #3 The Flying Trilobite
    November 3, 2007

    So sad. Washoe did such important work.

    I learned ASL when I was high school (our school had a program for deaf students as well). I’ve tried to keep it up over the years, and it is always amazing when watching a video of Washoe seeing a word pop out that I understand. It’s exactly like the first time you hear a parrot speak. You know there is an intelligence in there, but now it’s communicating on humanity’s terms.

    There is something very very precious about that.

  4. #4 Nathaniel
    November 4, 2007

    What I am fascinated by is the fact that this chimp was able to pass on language to other chimps, including her child. That shines some new light into the origins and spread of language. I would imagine that further research into this will reveal some really cool findings.

    It’s sad that she died, but she did leave behind her gift of hand gab. She definitely lived a life worth living. Her legacy will live on.

  5. #5 Benjamin Rooney
    November 5, 2007

    This makes me feel like a fool. I got my undergraduate degrees in Ellensburg and never once went to visit Washoe…

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