On the origins of human handedness and language: A comparative review of hand preferences for bimanual coordinated actions and gestural communication in nonhuman primates


Correspondence to: Adrien Meguerditchian


Within the evolutionary framework about the origin of human handedness and hemispheric specialization for language, the question of expression of population-level manual biases in nonhuman primates and their potential continuities with humans remains controversial. Nevertheless, there is a growing body of evidence showing consistent population-level handedness particularly for complex manual behaviors in both monkeys and apes. In the present article, within a large comparative approach among primates, we will review our contribution to the field and the handedness literature related to two particular sophisticated manual behaviors regarding their potential and specific implications for the origins of hemispheric specialization in humans: bimanual coordinated actions and gestural communication. Whereas bimanual coordinated actions seem to elicit predominance of left-handedness in arboreal primates and of right-handedness in terrestrial primates, all handedness studies that have investigated gestural communication in several primate species have reported stronger degree of population-level right-handedness compared to noncommunicative actions. Communicative gestures and bimanual actions seem to affect differently manual asymmetries in both human and nonhuman primates and to be related to different lateralized brain substrates. We will discuss (1) how the data of hand preferences for bimanual coordinated actions highlight the role of ecological factors in the evolution of handedness and provide additional support the postural origin theory of handedness proposed by MacNeilage [MacNeilage [2007]. Present status of the postural origins theory. In W. D. Hopkins (Ed.), The evolution of hemispheric specialization in primates (pp. 59–91). London: Elsevier/Academic Press] and (2) the hypothesis that the emergence of gestural communication might have affected lateralization in our ancestor and may constitute the precursors of the hemispheric specialization for language. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Dev Psychobiol 55: 637–650, 2013.