Children develop in environments saturated with objects that they must learn to use. One of the most efficient ways in which children do this is by imitating. Recent work has shown that, in contrast to non-human primates, when children learn by imitating they focus more on reproducing the specific actions used than the actual outcomes achieved. From 18 months of age children will routinely copy arbitrary and unnecessary actions. This puzzling behavior is called ‘over-imitation’. By documenting similarities exhibited by children from a large, industrialized city and children from remote Bushman communities in southern Africa, we provide here the first indication that over-imitation may be a universal human trait. We also show that over-imitation is unaffected by the age of the child, testing environment, or familiarity of the demonstrating adult. Furthermore we argue that, although seemingly maladaptive, over-imitation reflects an evolutionary adaptation fundamental to the development and transmission of human culture.