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Abstract

In an observational study on semi-free Barbary macaques it was investigated whether the phylogenetic roots of human laughter and smile can be traced back to the genus Macaca. On the basis of morphological similarity a ‘relaxed open-mouth display’ as the phylogenetic precursor of the laughter, and a ‘silent bared-teeth display’ as the possible ancestor of the smile can be distinguished in the repertory of the Barbary macaque. Behavioural sequences from focal animal protocols were analyzed in order to establish message and meaning of both displays. Relaxed open-mouth display is regularly observed in the play interactions of juveniles. It is associated with partner-directed behaviour, it is frequently answered by a relaxed open-mouth display of the receiver, and accompanied by a special vocalization. Although up to 50% of the juvenile's play partners were higher ranking than themselves voluntary participation was the rule. Most characteristically, the behaviour patterns shown by both play partners are highly symmetrical and synchronized.

Silent bared-teeth display is typically accompanied by evasive or submissive body movements, and occurs primarily in dyadic interactions, mainly by the lower ranking individual. It is not an unidirectional sign of a linear dominance hierarchy, though. Silent bared-teeth display is a frequent answer to aggressive behaviour shown by the receiver. After its performance, an increase of body contact between sender and receiver was observed. Behavioural sequences of senders and receivers are complementary, but lose their asymmetry after occurrence of the display.

It is concluded that these results further support Van Hooff's (1972) view that human laughter and smile have different phylogenetic roots: while silent bared-teeth display is a signal of submission and appeasement, relaxed open-mouth display is rightly called the ‘play face’, and is an expression of fun.