A cross-cultural investigation of young children’s spontaneous invention of tool use behaviours

Karri Neldner*, Eva Reindl, Claudio Tennie, Julie Grant, Keyan Tomaselli, Mark Nielsen

*Corresponding author for this work

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15 Citations (Scopus)
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Through the mechanisms of observation, imitation and teaching, young children readily pick up the tool using behaviours of their culture. However, little is known about the baseline abilities of children's tool use: what they might be capable of inventing on their own in the absence of socially provided information. It has been shown that children can spontaneously invent 11 of 12 candidate tool using behaviours observed within the foraging behaviours of wild non-human apes (Reindl et al. 2016 Proc. R. Soc. B283, 20152402. (doi:10.1098/rspb.2015.2402)). However, no investigations to date have examined how tool use invention in children might vary across cultural contexts. The current study investigated the levels of spontaneous tool use invention in 2- to 5-year-old children from San Bushmen communities in South Africa and children in a large city in Australia on the same 12 candidate problem-solving tasks. Children in both cultural contexts correctly invented all 12 candidate tool using behaviours, suggesting that these behaviours are within the general cognitive and physical capacities of human children and can be produced in the absence of direct social learning mechanisms such as teaching or observation. Children in both cultures were more likely to invent those tool behaviours more frequently observed in great ape populations than those less frequently observed, suggesting there is similarity in the level of difficulty of invention across these behaviours for all great ape species. However, children in the Australian sample invented tool behaviours and succeeded on the tasks more often than did the Bushmen children, highlighting that aspects of a child's social or cultural environment may influence the rates of their tool use invention on such task sets, even when direct social information is absent.
Original languageEnglish
Article number192240
Number of pages14
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 15 May 2020


  • Cognitive development
  • Cross-cultural psychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • Physical cognition
  • Problem solving
  • Tool use


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