Children and apes 'share spontaneous ability to use tools'
Published 24/02/2016 | 00:21
Wild apes and toddlers share the same innate ability to use tools, a study has found.
Both chimpanzees and human three-year-olds can figure out how to use a stick as a simple tool without first having to be taught, the research showed.
This capacity for "spontaneous" invention challenges the popular belief that children have to learn how to use tools from their parents or each other.
The study, conducted by psychologists at the University of Birmingham, is the first to apply great ape tool behaviour tests to children.
A total of 50 children aged two to three-and-a-half took part in the experiment, which involved working out how to use sticks or hammers to perform simple tasks.
Both wild chimpanzees and orangutans have shown that they can spontaneously use sticks or stones to fish for termites, extract fruit or honey, or crack nuts.
The same tasks were mirrored in the children, only this time they involved using sticks to retrieve balls of modelling clay and pom poms from inaccessible tubes or boxes, or a hammer to crack open plastic containers.
While the children were told the goal of a task - for instance, removing pom poms from a box - they were not shown how to carry it out.
In 11 out of 12 tasks, the children spontaneously adopted the correct use of available tools.
PhD student Eva Reindl, from the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology, said: " While it is true that more sophisticated forms of human tool use indeed require social learning, we have identified a range of basic tool behaviours which seem not to.
"Using great ape tasks, we could show that these roots of human tool culture are shared by great apes, including humans, and potentially also their last common ancestor."
She pointed out that all the tasks were unfamiliar to the children, ensuring that they had to invent the correct behaviour rather than rely on previously acquired knowledge.
Mimicking tests previously conducted on great apes meant comparisons could be made between the different species.
The findings, reported in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggest that mental functions underlying tool use are shared by humans and apes.
Soviet psychologist Lev Vtgotsky, one of the biggest influences on theories about human cultural and social development, argued that humans only learned how to use tools from others. He claimed there was "practically zero" spontaneous tool use by children.