A new study has compared children’s capacity to imitate behaviour with the same capacity of the bonobos primate.
The study found that bonobos did not copy actions as children do, highlighting the unique nature of human imitation. The study, by researchers at the University of Birmingham and Durham University in the UK, appears in the journal Child Development.
Professor Zanna Clay, lead author of the study, said: “Our results show striking species differences in imitation.
“The young children were very willing to copy actions even though they served no obvious function, while the bonobos were not. Children’s tendency to imitate in this way likely represents a critical piece of the puzzle as to why human cultures differ so profoundly from those of great apes.”
In the study, researchers compared the imitative behaviour of 77 typically developing 3-5-year-olds with that of 46 untrained bonobos living in naturalistic forest enclosures in Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Children were recruited from the Birmingham Science Museum, which resulted in an ethnically diverse sample from low- and middle-income families. Imitation was defined as authentically copying body movements from others.
The researchers showed children and bonobos a small wooden box with a reward inside. Before opening the box, an experimenter performed some nonsensical actions over the box, such as waving a hand or tracing an imaginary line over it. Each participant was then given a box without any instructions. Most of the children spontaneously imitated the actions; in contrast, none of the bonobos made any attempt to copy any of the actions.
Claudio Tennie, co-author of the study, added: “The fact that the bonobos failed to imitate demonstrates that even enhanced social orientation may not be enough to trigger human-like cultural learning behaviours.
“Although some animals show some limited abilities to copy, copying actions that have no apparent purpose appears to be uniquely human.”
The study was funded under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme and the European Research Council (ERC).