Imagine communicating with a nonhuman intelligence . .
Anthropologist Dr. H. Lyn Miles did. She created Project Chantek, a twenty-year scientific research effort to teach sign language and human culture to Chantek, a male orangutan. Unique among ape studies, she emphasized the development of cultural models and processes in Chantek’s upbringing, wanting to know not only what was in the mind of an orangutan, but also how human symbol systems may have evolved.
Dr. Miles began Project Chantek in 1978 at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and raised Chantek from 9 months of age in a trailer on campus. She enculturated him, i.e., encouraged him to learn and be shaped by human culture. She communicated with Chantek using signs from the American Sign Language for the deaf, with a small group of caregivers and students who formed Chantek’s family. Chantek had a pet squirrel and cat; asked to go for car rides to the lake, park, and fast food restaurants; and even went to the circus.
Chantek developed a vocabulary of over 150 signs after several years, and comprehended spoken English. He even invented signs of his own, e.g., EYE-DRINK for contact lens solution, and DAVE-MISSING-FINGER for a special friend. Chantek’s learning closely paralleled that of human children. He developed referential ability and pointed to and showed objects much as human children. He showed self-awareness, could groom himself in a mirror, used his signs in mental planning and deception, and learned roles and role reversal in games such as “Simon Says.” He made paintings, found art assemblages, and stone tools. Indeed, his intelligence, language, and thinking ability qualify him for personhood in the opinion of a growing number of scientists and other experts.
In 1986, Project Chantek moved to the Division of Behavioral Biology at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center, and in 1997, Project Chantek moved to Zoo Atlanta where Dr. Miles’ research continues with Chantek, off exhibit. Chantek has learned new signs such as TOMATO, KIWI, SECRET-PLACE, STAR, FAVORITE, KEY-MAN, KATHY, and THROW. Dr. Miles will continue to increase Chantek’s vocabulary, and develop his tool and other cognitive abilities.
Project Chantek has been supported by the UC Foundation, the National Instutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Chantek Foundation, as well as private donors. It has resulted in two edited volumes and over 75 publications and papers.An exhibit of Project Chantek is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.