Gesture processing takes place in areas of the brain such as Broca's and Wernicke's areas, which are used by speech and sign language. In fact, language is thought by some scholars to have evolved in Homo sapiens from an earlier system consisting of manual gestures. The theory that language evolved from manual gestures, termed Gestural Theory, dates back to the work of 18th-century philosopher and priest Abbé de Condillac, and has been revived by contemporary anthropologist Gordon W. Hewes, in 1973, as part of a discussion on the origin of language.
Gestures have been studied throughout the centuries from different perspectives. During the Roman Empire, Quintilian studied in his Institution Oratoria how gesture may be used in rhetorical discourse. Another broad study of gesture was published by Englishman John Bulwer in 1644. Bulwer analyzed dozens of gestures and provided a guide on how to use gestures to increase eloquence and clarity for public speaking. Andrea De Jorio published an extensive account of gestural expression in 1832. A peer reviewed journal Gesture has been published since 2001, and was founded by Adam Kendon and Cornelia Müller. The International Society for Gesture Studies (ISGS) was founded in 2002.
Gesture has frequently been taken up by researchers in the field of dance studies and performance studies in ways that emphasize the ways they are culturally and contextually inflected. Performance scholar, Carrie Noland, describes gestures as "learned techniques of the body" and stresses the way gestures are embodied corporeal forms of cultural communication. But rather than just residing within one cultural context, she describes how gesture migrate across bodies and locations to create new cultural meanings and associations. She also posits how they might function as a form of "resistance to homogenization" because they are so dependent on the specificities of the bodies that perform them.
Gesture has also been taken up within queer theory, ethnic studies and their intersections in performance studies, as a way to think about how the moving body gains social meaning. José Esteban Muñoz uses the idea of gesture to mark a kind of refusal of finitude and certainty and links gesture to his ideas of ephemera. Muñoz specifically draws on the African-American dancer and drag queen performer Kevin Aviance to articulate his interest not in what queer gestures might mean, but what they might perform. Juana María Rodríguez borrows ideas of phenomenology and draws on Noland and Muñoz to investigate how gesture functions in queer sexual practices as a way to rewrite gender and negotiate power relations. She also connects gesture to Giorgio Agamben's idea of "means without ends" to think about political projects of social justice that are incomplete, partial, and legibile within culturally and socially defined spheres of meaning.
Within the field of linguistics, the most hotly contested aspect of gesture revolves around the subcategory of Lexical or Iconic Co-Speech Gestures. Adam Kendon was the first linguist to hypothesize on their purpose when he argued that Lexical gestures do work to amplify or modulate the lexico-semantic content of the verbal speech with which they co-occur. However, since the late 1990s, most research has revolved around the contrasting hypothesis that Lexical gestures serve a primarily cognitive purpose in aiding the process of speech production. As of 2012, there is research to suggest that Lexical Gesture does indeed serve a primarily communicative purpose and cognitive only secondary, but in the realm of socio-pragmatic communication, rather than lexico-semantic modification.