Humans have a lot in common with the great apes. We both make tools, we both have something sort of like laughter – and we share about 94 percent of our DNA.
Now researchers from the Max Planck Institute are trying to parse out just what cognitive skills we share with these forest creatures.
Their study published today in the journal Science, compared the skills of two & half-year-old children to those of chimps and orangutans ranging from 3 to 21 years old.
They found that children and apes are equally good at numerical and spatial skills, but when it comes to social learning the children left the apes in the dust.
For instance, toddlers learned how to pop open a container by watching the experimenter and then copying her. The apes, however, did not imitate. They made connections like, "stick helps open box," but instead of imitating, apes use the slower trick of trial and error.
The researchers explain that imitation is a fast way acquire a lot of knowledge and may have paved the way for our departure from these primate cousins – and ultimately allowed us to develop the complex social culture we have today.