The protean pointing gesture: Variation in a building block of human communication
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Pointing is a foundational building block of human communication, but does it take the same form from one culture to the next? Index finger pointing is often assumed to be universally privileged. Use of non-manual pointing morphologies has been attested around the world but it has never been clear how central these variants are in the communities in which they occur. Using a novel referential communication task, we investigated pointing preferences in two cultures: in the Yupno of Papua New Guinea and in the US. Our task prompted similar rates of pointing in both groups, but the Yupno participants produced more non-manual pointing (nose- and head-pointing) than manual pointing, while the US participants stuck unwaveringly to index finger pointing. The motivation for these starkly contrasting patterns requires further investigation, but it is clear they constitute fundamentally different ways of carrying out one of our most distinctively human communicative acts.