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Kids and Great Apes Create Similar Tools To Solve Problems

Feb 25, 2016 03:08 PM EST
Tool Use
Chimps use sticks as novel tools to get bugs out of deep crevices.
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons )

When it comes to solving problems, kids and wild great apes think a lot alike. A new study from the University of Birmingham has found that young children will spontaneously invent tools without the help of adults when faced with new problems, much like great apes have been observed to do. This discovery counters previous beliefs suggesting such tool use relies on social learning or the copying of others. 

"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.

The Birmingham research team recruited 50 boys and girls, aged 2.5 to three years old, for their study. Several experiments were designed to mirror the natural problem-solving behaviors of wild apes. For example, the kids were given a stick with which they had to figure out how to retrieve Play Doh balls from a tube. This task is similar to how chimpanzees use sticks to obtain insects from the bottom of a hole.

Overall, the toddlers successfully invented the proper tool for 11 out of the 12 tasks. The only problem they failed to solve was 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. Generally, great apes use rocks to accomplish this. 

"We chose great ape tasks for three reasons: Firstly, they are unfamiliar to children. This ensures that children will have to invent the correct behavior instead of using socially acquired, previous knowledge," Eva Reindl, Ph.D. student at the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology, said in a news release. "Second, they are ecologically relevant and third, they allow us to make species comparisons with regard to the cognitive abilities involved."

The idea, researchers say, was to provide children with an end goal and the raw materials necessary to accomplish each task, but never mention using the tools to do so. 

"While it is true that more sophisticated forms of human tool use indeed require social learning, we have identified a range of basic tool behaviors which seem not to," Reindl added. "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."

Their study was recently published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B

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