The Washoe Project was a groundbreaking study conducted by the University of Nevada, Reno in the 1960s and 1970s to determine the communication capabilities of chimpanzees. The study was led by Allen and Beatrix Gardner and their research team, and focused on a chimpanzee named Washoe. Washoe was the first non-human primate to be taught American Sign Language (ASL) and was the subject of numerous papers and books (Gardner & Gardner, 1969; Greenfield & Savage-Rumbaugh, 1990).

The study began in 1965 when Washoe was taken from her natural habitat in Africa and brought to the University of Nevada, Reno. The Gardners and their team began teaching her ASL, and within two years she had learned over 130 signs. The study lasted for eight years, during which the team documented Washoe’s progress and studied her interactions with humans and other chimpanzees.

The study showed that Washoe was able to understand and produce ASL, and could use it to communicate with her human caregivers and other chimpanzees. She was also able to acquire new signs and use them in creative ways. For example, she combined two signs to create a new one, and was able to understand and use abstract symbols such as “same” and “different”.

The results of the Washoe Project had a significant impact on the study of animal communication and cognition. It showed that non-human primates are capable of learning and using a human language, and demonstrated that they are capable of complex thought processes. The findings of the study have since been used as the basis for numerous other studies of animal communication and cognition.


Gardner, R.A., & Gardner, B.T. (1969). Teaching sign language to a chimpanzee. Science, 165, 664-672.

Greenfield, P.M., & Savage-Rumbaugh, E.S. (1990). Grammatical combination in Panbanisha, a language using chimpanzee. Language, 66, 708-744.

Scroll to Top