European scientists gave a battery of cognitive tests lasting three to five hours separately to 105 children aged 2, 106 chimpanzees and 32 orangutans over two weeks.
In one social learning test, a researcher showed the children and apes how to pop open a plastic tube to get food or a toy contained inside. The children observed and imitated the solution. Chimpanzees and orangutans, however, tried to smash open the tube or yank out the contents with their teeth.
The researchers believe their findings provide insight into the evolution of human cognition. People’s brains are three times larger than those of the closest primate relatives.
The researchers found that the children were far more advanced than the chimps and orangutans in understanding nonverbal communications, copying another person’s solution to a problem and understanding the intentions of others.
The apes – who performed the tests in animal sanctuaries in Africa and Indonesia – were closer to the toddlers in some other tests like those measuring “physical cognitive skills” involving things like quantities and causality, the researchers found.