There are two levels when it comes to communicating with monkeys. The first level involves observing, learning and practicing the repertoire of obvious gestures that monkeys use to ‘talk’ to one another. Eye contact is a threat, unless you are a mother bonding with her child. Opening the mouth and lunging is a more severe threat. One of my favorite gestures is called lip-smacking. It’s like kissing the air with food in your mouth, and it conveys appeasement and peacemaking.
The second level involves subtle and almost imperceptible communication that comes with intimacy. If you ever had a close sibling, friend or romantic partner then you know what I am talking about. It’s a rare kind of relationship where you read each others’ thoughts and complete an entire informative exchange by just looking at each other. Monkeys communicate the same way, but with their entire group.
There were 300 monkeys in the group that I studied in Puerto Rico and they all knew how to talk to each other on this intimate level, even the monkeys that didn’t get along. It took many hours of observation and assimilation for me to pick up on it. And when I finally understood how it worked, I tried it out, which was stupid but thrilling.
One of my favorite monkeys, K85 (pictured above), was sitting on a rock. I wanted to groom him (which is very dangerous, don’t ever try to do it). I stood in his periphery and without looking at me, he gave me the go ahead to groom him. I approached and he told me where to groom him and I sat down next to him on the rock. I was nervous. I used one finger to lightly touch his hair, but I ended up tickling him. He did not enjoy this. He slapped me, told me to F off and walked away.
Three females were watching and waiting for me to be rejected and came after me. I was surrounded by them and they were lunging at me. I used a stick to keep them back and eventually they left me alone, Though, one of the females held a grudge and spent the rest of the year waiting for me to drop my guard so she could slap me in the back of the leg. Don’t try to groom a monkey!
It’s hard to accurately describe the exchange between K85 and I. If anyone had observed us they wouldn’t have seen what happened. There was no eye contact, gestures, or sounds. Even though it was a stupid thing to do, it was also a profound moment. I had tapped into a universal wave of communication used by animals and very underused by humans.
This kind of intimate animal communication is a major theme in my novel The Alchemist’s Theorem. Every human has a creature companion with whom they speak with on this imperceptible wave. Why do I feel this is important? Because during my anthropology years I watched scientists go through a series of mental gymnastics to try and explain why humans are different from animals. All I was ever able to conclude was… we aren’t.