Deep in the lush Mahale Mountains of Tanzania, a chimpanzee strips a twig of its leaves and then plunges it into the ground. When she yanks it out, the twig is crawling with tasty termites. The chimp slurps the insects off the stick before fishing for more six-legged snacks.

Halfway around the world, a three-year-old British child sits before a cardboard box. A small hole reveals three sponges inside. If he can get the sponges out, he will earn a sticker. Without being instructed, the child decides to pick up a nearby Velcro-covered wood rod. He reasons that the sponges might stick to the Velcro, and he is right. In short order, he wins his prize.

In these examples, the Tanzanian primate is simply going about her day. The British primate, however, is participating in an experiment to investigate whether the use of certain tools is instinctual.

The parallels here are no accident. The research sought to compare the cognitive abilities of humans with those of our great ape relatives by relying on tool-related behaviors recorded in wild chimps and orangutans as a model for tests of young children. In a sample of 50 toddlers between two and three and a half years old, the researchers observed a similar frequency of tool-related behaviors as seen among wild chimps and orangutans. Common ape behaviors, such as fishing for termites, were observed often in the children engaged in analogous scenarios. And behaviors that were more rare in wild ape communities, such as using a rock to break open a nut, were also more infrequently used by the toddlers. In all, the children solved 11 of 12 tests. Psychologist Eva Reindl, who led the study, says the fact that the toddlers displayed the appropriate behaviors is evidence of the children's instinctual ability to use these simple tools.

The results, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, undermine the prevailing notion that children need to learn to use tools in all cases—an idea that goes back to Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who wrote in 1930 that spontaneous tool use by human children was “practically zero.” The findings also suggest that humans and other great apes might share a common, innate cognitive apparatus for understanding and manipulating the physical world.