Language, Love, and Emotions: Inside the Complex Social Structure of Clever Monkeys

Within their intricate jungle societies, monkeys and other primates conceal a fascinating secret: humans are not the only ones with a complex social structure. These primates can learn, strategize, communicate, love—and even cheat, lie, and murder. Join us tonight as we look closer at the world of some very Clever Monkeys.

Putting dinner on the table

Like us, monkeys have complex strategies for finding and preparing food—and they are sure to pass this information on to their young. In Sri Lanka, toque macaques pass the time by “fishing” for caterpillars, reeling them in on their own silk threads. Capuchin monkeys in Brazil have developed basic farming strategies for the tough-to-crack palm nut, a favorite food: once the nuts are collected, capuchins place them to ripen in the sun for four days before carefully cracking them open with pre-selected stone “tools.” Capuchins are also known, like humans, to self-medicate: they eat charcoal to aid indigestion, and rub the leaves of the antiseptic Piper plant all over their bodies—which, like us, they like to turn into a social event.

Watch this marmoset family farm tree sap, only for their next door neighbors to take advantage of all of their hard work!

Monkey Talk

A huge part of monkeys’ day-to-day survival is based on communication. They talk to one another constantly, using calls to warn one another about specific predators—each species of monkey has their own words for “snake,” “leopard,” and so on. Some monkeys are even multilingual, and can listen and respond to calls from a different species. Scientists were surprised to learn that this kind of monkey speech has its own grammatical rules: when the individual calls are put in a different order, their meaning changes completely. These striking similarities with human speech are most likely owed to a common ancestor.

Monkeys, like us, are not above trickery to get what they want. Deception among monkeys often means calling out a warning when no predator is present, causing other monkeys to scatter and abandon food stores. This implies the possibility of a sort of intelligence that had been long considered uniquely human: the ability to imagine things that aren’t there is a neurologically sophisticated one, as is something called ‘theory of mind’, which is a grasp on the thoughts of others and an understanding that we think differently from other people—or in this case, other monkeys.

Adult monkey with juvenile monkey.
Monkeys bond deeply with their young, and must spend many years raising them into independent adults. (Photograph by Charlotte Scott/BBC)

We are family

But ultimately, one basic human instinct is perhaps the most important thing we share with our long-lost primate cousins. Monkeys, humans, and all other primates take a very long time to grow up: this means that, like us, monkeys must take great care of their babies for many years. Monkey parents make large investments of time and resources in their young so that they have time to learn, explore, and develop deeper awareness of the world around them. Although taking so long to grow up can be costly, all of this makes monkeys some of the cleverest animals in the world.

Don’t miss Clever Monkeys this Sunday 7/26 at 10/9c, only on Nat Geo WILD!


  1. Rose Camama
    July 26, 2015, 9:51 pm

    Pretty interesting looking fellas..

  2. WW
    April 10, 2016, 8:13 pm

    Long lost cousins? How so? They have not been lost at all, that I know of.