Ever wondered what hominin kids were up to? Read this great, short news story from archeology.org
Each summary outlines cross-cultural findings on a wide array of topics (e.g. gender differences, children’s play, alloparents, etc.). In the “What we do not know” section at the end of each summary, students can find a list of questions that remain unanswered, the perfect resource needed for peaking curiosity, and for finding a topic for a research project, and beyond!
Spikins et al. explore Neanderthal children’s role in society in this 2014 paper in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology.
Abstract: Childhood is a core stage in development, essential in the acquisition of social, practical and cultural skills. However, this area receives limited attention in archaeological debate, especially in early prehistory. We here consider Neanderthal childhood, exploring the experience of Neanderthal children using biological, cultural and social evidence. We conclude that Neanderthal childhood experience was subtly different from that of their modern human counterparts, orientated around a greater focus on social relationships within their group. Neanderthal children, as reflected in the burial record, may have played a particularly significant role in their society, especially in the domain of symbolic expression. A consideration of childhood informs broader debates surrounding the subtle differences between Neanderthals and modern humans.
A new paper by Samuel Dira and Barry Hewlett entitled Learning to Survive Ecological Risks among the Sidama of Southwestern Ethiopia published in the Journal of Ecological Anthropology explores how Sidama farmer teenagers learn to mitigate environmental risk.
Abstract: Sidama farmers rely on rain-fed agriculture and experience a highly variable natural environment. Recurrent drought, erratic rainfall, and crop and livestock loss are common in mid and lowland areas, but local people are not passive victims of the changing environment: they use accumulated knowledge and skills to respond to and buffer ecological changes. Based on freelists and in-depth interviews with 70 adults and 50 adolescents, this paper describes how the Sidama conceive of ecological risks, survive difficult times, and learn to be resilient. The results indicate that food shortage and drought are salient risk factors. While local people think the future is unpredictable, they have diverse and complex knowledge about saving, trading and farming that help them cope with environmental challenges. Fifty adolescents interviewed reported that they learned diverse survival strategies from parents, fellow adolescents, and other adults. Interviews with adolescents and adults indicate that the Sidama use multiple methods, including teaching, to transmit cultural knowledge and skills about how to survive ecological risks.
Our work, as well as that of our research affiliate Dr. Adam Boyette, was mentioned in an article on children’s play in ScienceNews!
Polly Wiessner’s paper entitled Embers of Society in PNAS described how evening storytelling among the Ju/’hoansi serves as an important setting for transmitting social norms.
Abstract: Much attention has been focused on control of fire in human evolution and the impact of cooking on anatomy, social, and residential arrangements. However, little is known about what transpired when firelight extended the day, creating effective time for social activities that did not conflict with productive time for subsistence activities. Comparison of 174 day and nighttime conversations among the Ju/’hoan (!Kung) Bushmen of southern Africa, supplemented by 68 translated texts, suggests that day talk centers on economic matters and gossip to regulate social relations. Night activities steer away from tensions of the day to singing, dancing, religious ceremonies, and enthralling stories, often about known people. Such stories describe the workings of entire institutions in a small-scale society with little formal teaching. Night talk plays an important role in evoking higher orders of theory of mind via the imagination, conveying attributes of people in broad networks (virtual communities), and transmitting the “big picture” of cultural institutions that generate regularity of behavior, cooperation, and trust at the regional level. Findings from the Ju/’hoan are compared with other hunter-gatherer societies and related to the widespread human use of firelight for intimate conversation and our appetite for evening stories. The question is raised as to what happens when economically unproductive firelit time is turned to productive time by artificial lighting.
FCS’s Sheina Lew-Levy and Noa Lavi were at the Children’s Acquisition of Kinship Knowledge: Theory and Method Workshop in Bristol recently, exploring kinship learning among foragers in Congo and India. We were very grateful for the thoughtful and provocative conversation surrounding learning kinship and kinship terms. We are looking forward to exploring these ideas further!
Three Mbendjele cousins. Their mothers are sisters. They refer to each other as older and younger siblings.
Changing relations, changing terms: Learning dynamic sociality and kinship among South Indian Nayaka foragers
By Noa Lavi
Abstract: Kinship provides a framework for social organisation and order. As such, its terminology is usually learned by children as they begin to make sense of their social surroundings. Learning the proper kinship categories for each relative helps children locate themselves in the social network to which they will belong throughout their lives. However, the case of the Nayaka, a hunter-gatherer community living in the forested hills of the Nilgiri district in South India, presents an alternative usage and understanding of kinship concepts. Nayaka do not use fixed kinship terms. Kinship terms are flexible and change according to ad-hoc social relations. This pattern of relationality is not limited only to kinship terminology but is actually a fundamental notion that structures many aspects of people’s lives, including their notions of knowledge and knowledge acquisition. In fact, the entire process of Nayaka’s children development is based on the gradual learning of the ability to maintain such ad-hoc relationships. Among other things, children must learn to alternate between different kinship concepts according to the circumstances and relations at any given moment. The case of the Nayaka, therefore, highlights the complexity and diversity of kin concepts among different social systems.
Play and teaching among Mbendjele foragers
By Sheina Lew-Levy
Abstract: As more studies are conducted on social learning cross-culturally, and on social learning among hunter-gatherers specifically, researchers are coming to understand the importance of child-to-child transmission, through play and reciprocal teaching, to the learning of skills specific to food getting tasks. However, less is known about how forager children learn cultural and social norms, such as kinship terms. In this paper, I will outline some of my recent findings regarding the ways in which Mbendjele forager children from the Congo Basin transmit foraging knowledge to each other through play and teaching. Then, by summarizing results from a meta-ethnographic review conducted on how forager children learn social and gender norms, I will show that, unlike learning to forage, learning about kinship is primarily transmitted by ‘teaching play’ from adults to children. Finally, I will describe how two kinship terms, ‘mbanda’ and ‘ndoyi’ are taught to young children through word play among the Mbendjele, and how the transmission of kinship terms is similar to, and differs from, learning to hunt and gather.