Young children and wild great apes think alike, at least when it comes to using tools to solve similar problems.
Since toddlers can come up with their own simple tool techniques, without the help of adults, a new study counters the widespread belief that such basic skills require instruction from adults, or result from copying them. The same is likely true for non-human great apes like chimpanzees too, suggests the research in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"We do not fully rely on our cultures to be smart," senior author Claudio Tennie told Discovery News, explaining that "these behaviors instead derive from a complex interaction of genetic and environmental factors," which have yet to be completely determined.
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Tennie and his colleagues from the University of Birmingham recruited 50 boys and girls, aged 2.5 to 3 years old, for the study. The researchers created a dozen tasks that were all based on wild great ape natural behaviors. For example, the kids were given a stick, and had to figure out how to retrieve Play Doh balls from a tube. This is similar to how chimpanzees use sticks to pound the bottom of a hole to obtain insects.
Another task required the toddlers to use a wet stick to collect polystyrene beads, and then wipe them into a box. Chimps do something very similar when collecting and then eating ants.
The kids only failed one experiment: the "nut-hammer task," where a plastic sphere serving as an artificial nut had to be cracked open by hammering it with a hard object made of clay. Chimps use rocks as hammers for this purpose. Only one child was able to pull off the task.
For all of the other tasks, however, the kids used their tools in ways that mirror tool use among great wild apes. Lead author Eva Reindl explained that her team chose to study only young children "because with increasing age, children's cultural knowledge will increase, and thus it becomes harder and harder to rule out that children have used cultural knowledge to solve these tasks."
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As for why both wild great apes and young humans spontaneously use tools in similar ways, the answer seems to be that both groups are able to learn physical rules governing their environment when interacting with objects.
Orangutans, chimps, bonobos, gorillas and humans all seem to independently figure out the basic rules that they can then apply later to other challenges. For example, if a chimp learns that a stick can retrieve a certain object, then he may use the stick later to acquire other objects.