Kanzi is one chatty bonobo—and not just with other apes. What's extraordinary about Kanzi, a 29-year-old ape, is that he is able understand and communicate with humans. His knowledge of language is so advanced, it has people asking: Will a bonobo bridge the gap between primates and humans?
After learning about Kanzi in a Time magazine article, Lisa Ling traveled to the Great Ape Trust in Iowa, where primatologist Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has been studying bonobos for nearly 40 years. Dr. Sue has been teaching Kanzi to communicate using lexigrams on a computer. A lexigram is a symbol that represents a word. To "speak," Kanzi touches a lexigram on the keyboard, which repeats the word out loud. Kanzi demonstrates to Lisa how he finds the symbols for "ball," "egg" and "Matata," Kanzi's mother's name.
"On his keyboard, there are about 450 [words] that he can understand," Dr. Sue says. "The number that he uses on a daily basis is maybe 30 or 40." But, Dr. Sue says, Kanzi may know several thousand words. "He can actually put together two-word sentences and multiple words," Lisa says.
For example, the lexigram for "flood" is not on Kanzi's keyboard. "So when Iowa was hit by the storm and was flooding, he would point out 'big water,'" Lisa says.
When Kanzi was given kale to eat, he used his lexigrams to find the right words. "He had a hard time chewing the kale, so he pointed at 'slow lettuce,'" Lisa says. For the word "pizza," which is not on Kanzi's keyboard, he pointed at "cheese," "tomato" and "bread."