Exploration is essential for skill acquisition and strongly facilitates cognitive performance. In humans, it is widely known that exploration and later cognitive performance are highly dependent on early social inputs. Here, we aim to shed light on the evolutionary roots of this process by studying the effects of variation in opportunities for social learning on the exploratory tendency of immature orangutans (<jats:italic>Pongo</jats:italic> spp.) in nature. We based our analyses on mixed cross-sectional, longitudinal data of exploration by immatures and their mothers. Current exploration rates were correlated with levels of past experienced sociability, but not with current food abundance or with maternal condition, and only partly with genetic similarity. We conclude that the dependence of cognitive development on socially triggered exploration, which underlies the construction of cognitive skills such as intelligence, existed before the emergence of the human lineage.