It could be argued that, as the elephants are used to human contact, they somehow learnt what pointing means from their handlers. However, the 11 elephants used in this study were trained to respond to vocal commands only. Smet observed the elephants over several months and their handlers never used gestures of any kind to direct them.
What’s more, the elephants’ ability to understand human pointing did not vary with how long they had lived with people, nor whether they were born in captivity or in the wild.
If the subject elephants learnt to understand pointing from their past experiences, it remained a mystery when and how.
Adapting to Domestication
The results also prompted researchers to speculate about what traits make certain species more adaptable to human company than others. The debate continues about domestication, with some researchers defending that domestication makes animals more acceptable of humans.
In contrast, Byrne defends it’s quite the opposite. “Rather than requiring domestication to change the cognition of wild animals in a human-like direction, it may be that we only ever managed to domesticate animals that were already able to understand our communicative intentions.”
Complex Social Networks: Pointing May Be in Elephant’s Natural Vocabulary
Humans and elephants are distantly related, which means it is most likely that the ability to understand pointing has evolved separately, and not from a shared ancestor. The question remains: why would elephants develop this ability to understand pointing? As elephants live in a complex social network, Byrne speculates that pointing is needed for elephants to communicate. “Pointing, or something roughly equivalent, might be part of their natural communication system – perhaps uniquely in the animal world. It would be great to test whether this hypothesis is true!” says Byrne.
Elephants are able to make many different gestures with their trunks, and Byrne and Smet are hoping to continue their research to determine whether pointing means anything in elephant society.
Anna F. Smet, Richard W. Byrne. African Elephants Can Use Human Pointing Cues to Find Hidden Food. (2013). Current Biology. Accessed October 13, 2013.