In the study, 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.
“The fact that the bonobos failed to imitate demonstrates that even enhanced social orientation may not be enough to trigger human-like cultural learning behaviors,” notes Claudio Tennie, research group leader at the University of Tubingen, who coauthored the study when he was at the University of Birmingham. “Although some animals show some limited abilities to copy, copying actions that have no apparent purpose appears to be uniquely human.” Paper. (paywall) – Zanna Clay, Claudio Tennie. Is Overimitation a Uniquely Human Phenomenon? Insights From Human Children as Compared to Bonobos. Child Development, 2017; DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12857 More.
The children were probably expecting , correctly or otherwise, some meaning behind the human gestures (that is, correct gestures open the box). But the apes would not think that way without considerable hands-on guidance. Then the gestures themselves would become rote for them but the underlying principle itself would not usually be abstracted to other situations.
See also: Are apes entering the Stone Age?
Furry, feathery, and finny animals speak their minds
Limits of bonobo learning: