[Paper spotlight] Natural Pedagogy in Oral Storytelling: Evidence that Humans are a Teaching Species

This paper was presented by Michelle Scalise Sugiyama  in the session Ages and Stages at the 2018 AAA annual meeting, and co-authored by Lawrence Sugiyama. Both are professors of anthropology at the University of Oregon.

Abstract: Instruction is reportedly rare in forager societies, raising the question of whether humans have evolved adaptations for teaching. This question hinges on definition. Ethologists define teaching as the modification of behavior by an expert in the presence of a novice, such that the expert incurs a cost (or derives no immediate benefit) and the novice acquires skills/knowledge it wouldn’t acquire (or would acquire less efficiently) otherwise. This begs the question of how behavior is modified to transmit knowledge. Csibra & Gergely (2009) argue that human communication contains mechanisms (e.g., eye contact, pointing, prosodic variation) that signal intent to transmit generalizable knowledge, indicate the intended recipient, and collectively constitute a “natural pedagogy.” On this view, the communication of generalizable knowledge in conjunction with the use of natural pedagogy constitutes evidence of teaching. This study presents evidence that oral storytelling meets these criteria. We searched the forager ethnographic record for descriptions of the stylistic aspects of performed narrative; descriptions were analyzed for references to (a) the use of natural pedagogy behaviors by narrators, and (b) the transmission of generalizable knowledge in oral storytelling. Descriptions were found for 22 forager cultures across five continents and diverse ecological zones and language families: all culture groups evinced the use of natural pedagogy and the transmission of generalizable knowledge in performed narrative. Results suggest that oral storytelling is a form of teaching in our species.


[Paper spotlight] Ages and Stages: Child learning, exploration, and helping behaviors in foraging and transitioning populations

For the next couple of weeks, we’ll be posting abstracts from the session Ages and stages: Child learning, exploration, and helping behaviors in foraging and transitioning populations. This session was presented at the American Anthropological Association 2018 annual meeting in San Jose. Two fantastic scholars organized the panel; Helen Davis, currently a postdoctoral research fellow in the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, works on schooling and cognition among Tsimane forager-horticulturalists (Bolivia) and Twe pastoralists (Namibia). Alyssa Crittenden is a professor of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and works on nutrition, and foraging among Hadza foragers (Tanzania). Get ready for some killer abstracts by the panelists!

Abstract: Hunting and gathering is, evolutionarily, the defining subsistence strategy of our species. Furthermore, many societies are in the process of transitioning from hunting and gathering to market integration, either by choice or by external pressure. Studying how children learn in these societies can, therefore, provide us with key data to test theories about the evolution of human life history, cognition, social behavior, adaptive learning responses, and culture change. However, at present, many assumptions in regard to normative teaching and learning behaviors among children are based only on data from what have been coined Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic (WEIRD) societies. In line with this year’s theme Change in the Anthropological Imagination, we aim to expand the dialogue on, and articulate the ways in which, current anthropological research may support or refute long standing ideas about how children learn, when and what they learn, from whom they learn, and how cultures are maintained and changed across generations.

For this session we will focus on learning behaviors in foraging and transitioning populations during middle childhood and adolescence. Middle childhood (about age 6-11) marks a turning point in development, both hormonally (adrenarche) and socially, as children in all cultures broaden their social sphere and engage in more gender-typical roles. Adolescence (11-19) is a time of great motivational and emotional changes, and marks the transitional stage from childhood to adulthood. We are interested in both how forager children learn and explore during these periods of development, and how cultural and social transitions affect traditional modes of childhood learning, confidence and exploration, as well as subsistence behaviors.

[In the news] Variations in play between cultures warn west against ‘one-size-fits-all’ recipes for child development

Read this article by Jaipaul L. Roopnarine in the Child & Family blog here. 

“However, in many societies, fathers don’t do roughhouse play. Yet their children have close, well-attached relationships with them and also learn to control their feelings and manage social relationships. A good example is the Aka hunter-gatherer community in the Central African Republic. In this collectivist, egalitarian culture, fathers don’t roughhouse with their young children. Nevertheless, Aka fathers are reckoned to have the closest child-father relationships in the world – they are very gentle caregivers, holding their babies 22 per cent of the time, according to Barry Hewlett’s research. No need to teach Aka dads to roughhouse – they clearly have different pathways to successful child development.”

[In the news] If this is a park…

By Fiore Longo from Survival International. Read more here. 

“The Baka stand ready to fight, both for their own sake and that of the greater good: “We cannot accept the park. It’s useless. Everything is there: food, life, health, all of this you can find in the forest. If we give it away it would be a sacrifice, we would be sacrificing the lives of our children, of our parents, of ourselves — it would be like committing suicide.” It would be a sacrifice for us too: we would lose tribal peoples, the environment and perhaps also our humanity.”


[Blog post] Skills Shortage! Or The Replicator’s Conceit

Today we’re reblogging from our friend, Dr Annemieke Milks. Mieke is an archeologists who thinks critically about the role of experience in the development of skill. Check out her blog ‘Sticks and Stones’ here.

Sticks and Stones

Experimental archaeology has run as a thread throughout my postgraduate studies, and I’ve conducted a number of different types of experiments on Pleistocene hunting weapons. Something that was clear early on in designing my experiments is that we have a present-day skills shortage in terms of how humans used early hunting spears.

Once upon a time I was a professional violinist, and it always amused (read: annoyed) me when people assumed that being in a professional orchestra wasn’t that difficult. Typically it would be a middle-aged businessman joking at a post-concert dinner, but it also often arises in public commentary regarding orchestras on strike. I started violin at age 4, and practiced and rehearsed most days, building up to 3 to 5 hours per day during my teenage years, and significantly more at university. I probably under-practiced compared to many of my peers. Those years of study didn’t just involve…

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