[Paper Spotlight] Teaching in Hunter-Gatherers

A new review by Adam Boyette and Barry Hewlett chronicles the evidence for teaching in hunter-gatherers. Check it out here!

Abstract: Most of what we know about teaching comes from research among people living in large, politically and economically stratified societies with formal education systems and highly specialized roles with a global market economy. In this paper, we review and synthesize research on teaching among contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. The hunter-gatherer lifeway is the oldest humanity has known and is more representative of the circumstances under which teaching evolved and was utilized most often throughout human history. Research among contemporary hunter-gatherers also illustrates a complex pattern of teaching that is both consistent with and distinct from teaching in other small- and large-scale societies with different subsistence practices and cultural forms. In particular, we find that the cultural emphasis on individual autonomy and socio-political egalitarianism among hunter-gatherers differently shapes how teaching occurs. For example, teaching clearly exists among hunter-gatherers and appears in many forms, including institutionalized instruction in valued cultural and technical skills. However, teaching tends to be less common in hunter-gatherer societies because people live in small, intimate egalitarian, groups that support each other’s learning in a variety of ways without teaching. Furthermore, foundational cultural schemas of autonomy and egalitarianism impact the nature of teaching. For example, adults and older children limit their interventions, permitting autonomous learning, and, when they occur, teaching episodes are generally brief, subtle, indirect, and situated in a present activity (i.e. knowledge is not objectified or intended to be generalizable). We discuss the implications of this research in terms of discussions of the evolution of human cognition and the co-evolution of teaching and culture through the process of cultural niche construction.


[Paper Spotlight] Our new paper on how Hunter-Gatherer Children Learn Foraging Skills was just published in Human Nature!


We are pleased to announce that our second research team paper, entitled How Do Hunter-Gatherer Children Learn Subsistence Skills? A Meta-Ethnographic Review was recently published (Open Access!) in the journal Human Nature! You can check out our paper here. 

Abstract: Hunting and gathering is, evolutionarily, the defining subsistence strategy of our species. Studying how children learn foraging skills can, therefore, provide us with key data to test theories about the evolution of human life history, cognition, and social behavior. Modern foragers, with their vast cultural and environmental diversity, have mostly been studied individually. However, cross-cultural studies allow us to extrapolate forager-wide trends in how, when, and from whom hunter-gatherer children learn their subsistence skills. We perform a meta-ethnography, which allows us to systematically extract, summarize, and compare both quantitative and qualitative literature. We found 58 publications focusing on learning subsistence skills. Learning begins early in infancy, when parents take children on foraging expeditions and give them toy versions of tools. In early and middle childhood, children transition into the multi-age playgroup, where they learn skills through play, observation, and participation. By the end of middle childhood, most children are proficient food collectors. However, it is not until adolescence that adults (not necessarily parents) begin directly teaching children complex skills such as hunting and complex tool manufacture. Adolescents seek to learn innovations from adults, but they themselves do not innovate. These findings support predictive models that find social learning should occur before individual learning. Furthermore, these results show that teaching does indeed exist in hunter-gatherer societies. And, finally, though children are competent foragers by late childhood, learning to extract more complex resources, such as hunting large game, takes a lifetime.

FCS presents poster at the Male Psychology Conference!

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In June, we presented our poster entitled:  How do hunter-gatherer children learn gender norms? A meta-ethnographic review at the Male Psychology Conference at UCL. Check out our poster here!


Purpose: The present poster aims to understand how hunter-gatherer children develop gendered norms of behaviour despite little intervention from adults. We use the meta-ethnographic review process to answer this question.Background: Various authors have noted that hunter-gatherer children are rarely assigned gendered chores. Furthermore, boys and girls exist in the same social spaces, are in close proximity to both men and women, and play in mixed-sex peer groups. Despite these same learning environments, hunter-gatherer children grow up to participate in the gendered division of labour common in their respective societies. When do children begin to exhibit gendered behaviours? Who do they learn these gendered behaviours from? Are there cross-cultural trends on learning gendered behaviours?

Method: We perform a meta-ethnography, which allows us to compare quantitative and qualitative publications on the topic of learning gendered behaviours during hunter-gatherer childhoods.

Conclusion: 23 relevant publications on the topic of learning gendered behaviours were extracted. Our findings suggest that, cross-culturally, hunter-gatherer children exhibit little gender differentiation in behaviour until middle childhood. Once within middle childhood, however, children transition from the mixed-sex playgroup to more gendered groups gradually, and without coercion from other children or adults. At the end of middle childhood, girls were more involved in children caretaking, cooking, and fishing than boys, while boys were more involved in hunting than girls, reflecting the adult division of labour in this society. As children grow into adolescence, observation, imitation, and negative feedback are all used for the purposes of gender socialization.