Neonatal Imitation of Adults

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Human Uniqueness Compared to "Great Apes": 
No Difference
Human Universality: 
Individual Universal (All Individuals Everywhere)
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Neonatal imitation is the act of doing the same movement (usually a facial expression) after seeing it performed by a social partner. This is not a human-unique capacity. Neonatal imitation of adults is experimentally tested by making specific facial expressions at infants directly after birth (i.e., mouth opening and tongue protrusion) and measuring whether the infant imitates by making the same facial expression. This capacity for early imitation of facial expressions represents the biological underpinnings of the set of important social cognitive capacities that humans and great apes possess. Imitation plays a crucial role in transmission of culture and facilitating social bonds. Neonatal imitation is distinct from other later forms of imitation, and seems to be largely reflexive, as the early ability to match facial expressions is inhibited at around 2-3 months of age when other infantile reflexes start to fade. This ability is driven by the capacity of infants to cross-modally process visual and motor information and to detect the equivalent motor response. The capacity for neonatal imitation has been demonstrated in all populations tested thus far, even outside of the commonly tested Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic cultures. For example, observations of Nepalese infants one hour post-partum demonstrated that they could imitate the facial expressions of an experimenter.

There is empirical evidence for facial imitation of adult humans in one-week-old chimpanzees, even after being reared by their biological mothers. There is also evidence for imitation of facial expression on the first day of life in newborn rhesus macaques. Importantly, the capacity for early facial imitation disappeared after two months, just as in humans, suggesting that this is an innate, reflexive capacity. The mechanism underlying human imitation for complex actions later in development is likely different from that which underlies neonatal imitation of facial expressions, which is shared between humans, chimpanzees, and other primates.
The capacity for neonatal facial imitation emerged before the human lineage split from that of old world primates, while other more complex social-cognitive capacities emerged much later in homo erectus.


Timing of appearance of the difference in the Hominin Lineage as a defined date or a lineage separation event. The point in time associated with lineage separation events may change in the future as the scientific community agrees upon better time estimates. Lineage separation events are defined in 2017 as:

  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and old world monkeys was 25,000 - 30,000 thousand (25 - 30 million) years ago
  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and chimpanzees was 6,000 - 8,000 thousand (6 - 8 million) years ago
  • the emergence of the genus Homo was 2,000 thousand (2 million) years ago
  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and neanderthals was 500 thousand years ago
  • the common ancestor of modern humans was 100 - 300 thousand years ago

Probable Appearance: 
6,000 thousand years ago
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Infant-Caregiver Affect Attunement True


  1. Neonatal imitation in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) tested with two paradigms., Bard, Kim A. , Anim Cogn, 2007 Apr, Volume 10, Issue 2, p.233-42, (2007)
  2. Neonatal imitation in rhesus macaques., Ferrari, Pier F., Visalberghi Elisabetta, Paukner Annika, Fogassi Leonardo, Ruggiero Angela, and Suomi Stephen J. , PLoS Biol, 2006 Sep, Volume 4, Issue 9, p.e302, (2006)
  3. Imitation in neonatal chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)., Myowa-Yamakoshi, Masako, Tomonaga Masaki, Tanaka Masayuki, and Matsuzawa Tetsuro , Dev Sci, 2004 Sep, Volume 7, Issue 4, p.437-42, (2004)
  4. Neonatal imitation in the first hour of life: Observations in rural Nepal., Reissland, Nadja , Developmental Psychology, Volume 24, p.464, (1988)
  5. Imitation of facial and manual gestures by human neonates., Meltzoff, A N., and Moore M K. , Science, 1977 Oct 7, Volume 198, Issue 4312, p.75-8, (1977)