How Do Hunter-Gatherer Children Learn Subsistence Skills?
How Do Hunter-Gatherer Children Learn Subsistence Skills?
A Meta-Ethnographic Review 0 1 2 3 4
Sheina Lew-Levy 0 1 2 3 4
Rachel Reckin 0 1 2 3 4
Noa Lavi 0 1 2 3 4
Jurgi Cristóbal-Azkarate 0 1 2 3 4
Kate Ellis-Davies 0 1 2 3 4
0 Department Anthropology, University of Haifa, University of Haifa Mount Carmel , 31905 Haifa , Israel
1 Division of Archeology, Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge , Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3DZ , UK
2 Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane , Cambridge CB2 3RQ , UK
3 Department of Psychology, Nottingham Trent University , Chaucer Street, Nottingham NG1 4BU , UK
4 HEZI Aholkularitza Pedagoikoa , Iturriotz 23 3°A, 20500 Arrasate, Gipuzkoa , Spain
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.
Humans have an exceptionally long pre-reproductive lifespan for our body size
. Humans are also unique in our ability to transmit vast quantities of cultural
knowledge from one generation to the next. This transmission of knowledge and
accumulation of culture allows us to update our technologies and environmental knowledge in
response to changing surroundings
(Boyd et al. 2011; Laland 2004)
. Some have argued that
this human emphasis on learning has shaped our especially long childhoods (e.g., Kaplan
and Robson 2002). Since hunting and gathering has been humanity’s subsistence strategy
for more than 90% of our evolutionary history, data from modern hunter-gatherer children
can be and has been used to test theories about how knowledge transmission has shaped the
evolution of our life history strategy
. And yet modern foragers are not
direct analogues to the past, nor are they a homogenous group; it is their immense cultural
diversity that makes the traits many foraging groups hold in common all the more striking.
In addition, studying the social learning of foragers in particular can help us understand the
diversity that exists among small-scale societies in general
(Boyette and Hewlett 2017)
Unfortunately, of the few studies that exist on the topic of learning subsistence skills
among foragers, only a handful employ a cross-cultural approach
(e.g., Barry et al.
1957, 1959; MacDonald 2007)
. Yet sociocultural perspectives support the
crosscultural study of learning, in recognition of the interdependence of social and individual
processes in the co-construction of knowledge
(John-Steiner and Mahn 1996; Nielsen
and Haun 2016)
. The few existing cross-cultural studies of hunter-gatherer learning
usually focus on a particular skill, such as hunting, and thus fail to recognize how
learning might be similar or different across various skill domains.
To address this gap, the present paper adopts a meta-ethnographic approach in order
to understand how hunter-gatherer children from around the world learn subsistence
skills. Our goal is to answer three main questions: first, how do hunter-gatherer children
learn those subsistence skills necessary to survival? Second, how long does it take to
learn those various skills? Finally, from whom do children learn subsistence skills? Our
approach is novel; though other publications have used a systematic cross-cultural
(e.g., Barry et al. 1957, 1959)
, the particular methods associated with a
metaethnographic review have never been applied to these questions, though they are ideal
for distilling patterns from broad data. By searching for learning behaviors in both
quantitative and qualitative literature, a meta-ethnographic review process can help
uncover trends that apply to foragers cross-culturally, as well as behaviors that stand out
(Blurton Jones et al. 1994; Harkness and Super 1983)
. Findings can
then, cautiously, be used to test theories about humanity’s foraging past. Before we
describe our methods and results, we offer some background on human life history
patterns, and outline features of social and individual learning in humans.
Primates in general, and chimpanzees, bonobos, and humans in particular, have
adopted a long and slow life history strategy known as K-selection
Wilson 1967; Smith 1989)
. Like other K-selected species, we have relatively large
bodies and invest heavily in a small number of offspring that take a long time to mature.
Though humans are similar in size to chimpanzees, some of our life history traits do not
fit the expected pattern for our clade. We have longer pre-reproductive lifespans, higher
fertility, and shorter interbirth intervals than expected for our body size, even when
considering the variability in human birth spacing and fertility
Lancaster et al. 2000; Leigh 2001; Robson and Kaplan 2003)
. Primates have a period
of infancy, from birth throughout the process of weaning. This is directly followed by
juvenility, where individuals are independent from direct provisioning from parents but
are not sexually mature. However, Bogin (2006) suggests that humans have inserted
another life history stage between these: early childhood, defined as a period in which,
though weaned, children still rely on adults for direct care
Why do humans have this extended childhood?
Kaplan and Robson (2002)
that it is an adaptation for learning complex extractive subsistence skills, especially
Kaplan et al. (2003)
point to the fact that, during early childhood, children’s
bodies grow relatively little, whereas their brains reach 95% of adult size by the time
they transition into juvenility around age six
(Bogin 1997, 2006; Konner 2010)
humans make use of resources that require complex skill and knowledge to extract,
investment in a large brain in early childhood sets the groundwork for complex learning
later in life and thus increases future performance
(Kaplan and Robson 2002; Kaplan
et al. 2003)
. This investment in embodied capital, according to
Kaplan et al. (2000)
, is a
driving factor in the evolution of human ontogeny.
So by what mechanisms do children learn, no matter their subsistence context? Children
can learn through play, participation, observation, and imitation. Play, specifically, is an
important tool through which children learn community-wide social norms and practice
their “chore curriculum”
(Chick 2009; Elias and Berk 2002; Göncü et al. 2006; Lancy
. Play also serves as a key venue for developing skills such as harvesting and
(Bock 2002, 2005; Bock and Johnson 2004)
Bock and Johnson (2004)
found that children played less and worked more as they aged. More
specifically, Bock (2002, 2005) and
Bock and Johnson (2004)
found that, as children grow
older, play that emulated specific, complex adult activities, such as pounding grain or
hunting, becomes less frequent, while actual participation in these activities increases. This
suggests that play may provide children with an opportunity to practice complex activities.
In addition, participating in adult activities alongside either adults or other children, such as
gathering water or firewood, allows a child to develop the necessary competencies to
complete these tasks independently
(Gaskins 2000; Lancy 2012; Rogoff et al. 2003)
Finally, in small-scale societies where adult activities are not segregated from those of
children, children have ample opportunities to observe adults and to imitate their behaviors
(Fouts et al. 2016; Gaskins and Paradise 2009; Odden and Rochat 2004)
Not only are children active imitators, they are also overimitators, defined as the
imitation of a model’s relevant as well as irrelevant actions
(Lyons et al. 2007)
demonstrated by various experiments in WEIRD—Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich,
(Henrich et al. 2010)
—societies. For example, in an experiment
Lyons et al. (2007)
, a model demonstrated how to open a variety of
containers through a series of relevant and irrelevant actions. The 3- to 5-year-old
children involved in the study were asked to identify any irrelevant action after each
demonstration. Though they did so successfully, when shown how to open the next
container with relevant and irrelevant actions, children imitated the sequence modeled
by the adult faithfully.
Over and Carpenter (2012)
argue that overimitation allows
children to learn technologies and cultural practices whose meaning is opaque,
allowing for fidelity of transmission across generations. On the other hand, children
appear to be incredibly selective in how and from whom they learn
Over and Carpenter 2012, 2013)
. In one study, 14- to 18-month-olds imitated
individuals who showed intentionality in their action, marked by the model saying “There!” If
the same action seemed accidental—marked by the model saying
“Whoops!”—children were less likely to copy the action
(Carpenter et al. 1998)
. Some consider imitation
and innovation the dual engines of cultural learning, as both are required for the
evolution of cumulative culture
(Legare and Harris 2016; Legare and Nielsen 2015)
Innovation, also known as individual learning, is especially adaptive when an
environment is in flux, and when new, novel innovations must be generated to better adapt to
(Aoki et al. 2012; Boyd et al. 2011; Enquist et al. 2007)
individual learning is costly, in that many attempts must be made before a useful
innovation is developed
(Boyd et al. 2011; Kline et al. 2013)
. Predictive models suggest
that, in order to learn adaptively, social learning should occur early in life, and
trial-anderror learning should occur later, once baseline competencies have been reached (Aoki
et al. 2012). Successful innovative behaviors are then diffused throughout the social group.
Finally, children learn from a wide variety of individuals, including parents, other
adults, and, importantly, other children. Vertical or parent-to-child transmission
(Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1982; Hewlett et al. 2011)
seems to be less conducive to
innovation, meaning it is more common in stable environments where information
need not change rapidly. Various studies have also noted that most vertical transmission
is sex-segregated, meaning that mothers teach their daughters and men teach their sons
(Chen et al. 1982; Hewlett and Cavalli-Sforza 1986)
. Oblique transmission takes place
when other adults from the parents’ generation teach children. Oblique transmission is
common for learning ceremonial practices, for example, where many members of a
cultural group share the same information. Child oblique transmission is when older
children teach younger ones. Horizontal transmission occurs within members of the
same generation—in this case, children to children—and allows for the rapid diffusion
of information. Thus, some theorists have suggested that horizontal transmission would
be favored in a rapidly changing environment
(Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1982)
One growing debate in the field of social learning is whether teaching occurs in
small-scale societies, including among foragers. The human propensity for
language, overimitation, and prosociality are all necessary for effective teaching, which
some believe to be a uniquely human adaptation, essential to the evolution of
(Dean et al. 2012; Gergely and Csibra 2006; Kline 2015;
Tomasello et al. 1993; but see Caro and Hauser 1992 for examples of teaching in
. And yet, not all agree that teaching occurs across human
cultures. Sociocultural anthropologist
: n. 1) defines teaching as “the
active and systematic intervention of a teacher whose goal is to change the behaviour
of a learner.” This definition closely resembles classroom teaching in a Western
setting, and Lancy ultimately concludes that this kind of teaching does not exist in
small-scale societies. Using this definition, MacDonald’s (2007) review of foragers
learning to hunt also argued that teaching rarely occurs. And yet
demonstrates that teaching has been variously defined depending on the research
field in question. A more functional definition derived from ethological studies
defines teaching as the process an individual uses to modify their behavior for the
benefit of facilitating another’s learning
. Therefore, importantly,
teaching comes at a cost to the teacher
(Caro and Hauser 1992)
. Under this definition,
behaviors such as chore assignment, commands, and positive and negative feedback
would be considered teaching, whereas under Lancy’s definition they would not.
Indeed, using this more functional definition, various authors, exploring small-scale
agricultural and foraging societies, have found evidence for teaching
and Hewlett 2017; Hewlett and Roulette 2016; Hewlett et al. 2011; Kline et al.
After considering the research on learning presented above, the present paper
systematically compares previous findings on how children learn subsistence skills in
forager societies. Since foragers are culturally distinct from other small-scale societies
(Hewlett et al. 2000)
and since our evolutionary history has largely been a foraging one
, focusing on foragers can provide us with unique insights into the
contributions of learning on the evolution of modern human life history. Furthermore,
of those studies focused on the association between the human life history strategy and
learning in foragers, few have employed a cross-cultural approach, which allows us to
draw broader trends from the literature. For example, Bliege
Bird and Bird (2002)
studying Meriam foraging, found that children made optimal foraging decisions based
on their size, and thus size and not learning could explain their differing foraging
returns. On the other hand,
Walker et al. (2002)
found that it takes Ache men more than
35 years to become proficient hunters, despite the fact that peak strength and size is
reached in their twenties. Is methodology, environment, or culture the cause of these
differences? Without a cross-cultural, comparative approach, it is difficult to say.
Furthermore, hunting is not the only skill that is complex: toolmaking, for example,
can also take a lifetime to master
(e.g., Jordan 2014)
. And yet, no studies consider these
skills through a life history framework. Thus, a broader approach to studying skill
acquisition in general, as opposed to particular skills, is warranted. The present study
aims to address both of these gaps by comparing cross-cultural data and studying skill
acquisition as part of life history.
Meta-ethnographies are primarily used to synthesize qualitative data for medical
research, but they have important applications across various fields
(Britten et al.
2002; Campbell et al. 2003; MacEachen et al. 2006)
. As with a systematic
literature review, meta-ethnographies allow researchers to extract common themes
and findings from studies from a variety of fields. However, unlike a systematic
literature review, a meta-ethnography allows for the inclusion of both qualitative
and quantitative studies so that our results may encompass a broader, more
interdisciplinary range of publications.
The electronic databases used for this search included PsycInfo, JStor, Springer, Wiley,
and ScienceDirect. We identified books and book chapters using the above search
engines as well as Google Books and the Cambridge University library search system,
which has referenced every book published in the UK. We found unpublished theses
and dissertations using ProQuest. Our search terms paired the words “forager” OR
“hunter-gatherer” with “child” and with “learn” OR “transmission” OR “socialization”
OR “skill acquisition.”
In an effort to identify and include older anthropological publications on
learning, we also surveyed the electronic Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF)
World Cultures (ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu) online as of January 2016. We
limited our search to those societies HRAF staff codes as hunter-gatherers and
“primarily hunter-gatherers.” Then we searched for ethnographic passages coded
by eHRAF staff as “socialization” (OCM code 860), “infancy” and “childhood”
(OCM code 850), “learning behavior” (modification of behavior; OCM code 153),
and “learning process” (ethnopsychology; OCM code 828) from the Outline of
(Murdock et al. 2008)
. eHRAF provided us with a list of
papers that mentioned learning. We investigated each to determine whether they
contained significant emphasis on hunter-gatherer learning in childhood.
We designed the final steps of our search in hopes of finding studies that we may
otherwise have missed. First, we searched the references of relevant articles and book
chapters. Second, we searched the references of qualitative literature reviews on
learning in hunter-gatherer children. Third, we searched the publication lists of first
authors of relevant publications. Fourth, we contacted the first authors of relevant
publications. We provided them with our publication list, to ensure that we were not
missing key texts, doctoral dissertations, or unpublished manuscripts. We also
contacted all authors who contributed to the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters
(Lee and Daly 1999)
for any published or unpublished manuscripts
on learning in their study communities. Finally, we sorted the studies into two overall
groups: studies on learning social skills and gendered behaviors
(Lew-Levy et al. 2017)
and studies on learning subsistence skills. This paper focuses on the latter topic.
Eligibility Criteria and Study Selection
We included studies based on three criteria. First, that the societies in question were
hunter-gatherers. Second, that the studies had primarily focused on learning. Third, that
the studies considered the learning of children.
Academic definitions of hunter-gatherers have varied broadly over the years, with
some focusing on a social definition of small-scale, egalitarian societies; others on a
pure economy of foraging; and others still on the importance of mobility. For each of
the various definitions of hunter-gatherers, the diversity of foragers across the world
means there is always a group that will not fit
. We chose to focus on
socially defined small-scale, relatively egalitarian and traditionally foraging societies.
There are no foragers today who do not accept economic input from domesticated
plants and animals. Thus, we included groups such as the Penan, who sometimes
participate in rice swidden agriculture, and the Aka, who trade with farming
neighbours. Because of our focus on a social definition of small-scale foragers, we
excluded some groups who, economically, are purely foragers, but whose societies are
highly stratified. For example, we excluded North America’s Pacific Northwestern
Kwakiutl, Nootka, and Makah, who subsisted entirely on wild foods, including
plentiful salmon runs, but also held slaves. In considering the inclusion of studies on native
North Americans and Australians more broadly, we exercised our judgment. Many of
these cultures are, of course, foundationally foraging ones, though they have been
forcibly removed from that lifeway. For this reason we included studies of Indigenous
socialization or mid-century ethnographies of Native Americans that discuss children’s
learning. We would like to note here that we included studies of foragers who attended
school, as long as these studies focused on children’s foraging activities. The reasons
for this are twofold: first, not all studies noted the degree to which children were
formally educated. Second, two studies included in this review noted that years spent in
school did not significantly influence children’s foraging performance
and Marlowe 2002; Kawabe 1983)
. However, we specifically excluded any studies
about learning in school. And, where we feel schooling might have influenced the
results of a study, we explicitly address this topic
(e.g., Nielsen and Tomaselli 2010;
Nielsen et al. 2014a, 2016)
. Finally, many foraging groups are not represented in this
study, and that may well be because there are no relevant studies about that group, not
because we do not consider them to be foragers.
In this review, we only included studies that focused specifically on learning
subsistence skills, or the processes associated with subsistence skills. We did not
include studies that mentioned learning but did not specifically explore this topic.
However, in older publications retrieved from eHRAF, mostly early- to
midtwentieth-century ethnographies, sections entitled “childhood” sometimes include
detailed descriptions of socialization practices. These were included. We included studies
that the authors in question define as focused on childhood. We also expected those
studies we selected for inclusion to have at least some original data. These include
studies that use various qualitative ethnographic methods (interviews, participant
observation, etc.), experimental designs, quantitative behavioral observations, and
quantitative interview techniques. We excluded studies that rely entirely on secondary
data we could access elsewhere. However, we used the references from these studies to
find their primary sources wherever possible. Finally, we excluded conference
proceedings, as well as publications in a language other than English.
Data Extraction and Synthesis
Data collection took place between January and March 2016. We extracted three
types of data for each study included in this survey. (1) Descriptive data: the
hunter-gatherer group(s) surveyed, the age group(s) surveyed, and the year in
which the paper was published. (2) Methodological data: the objective of the
study and the study design (interview, participant observation, behavioral
observation, etc.). (3) The findings of the study in relation to the three questions of
interest: How do hunter-gatherer children learn subsistence skills? How long does
it take to learn these various skills? From whom do children learn these skills? As
in all meta-ethnographies, in order to synthesize our findings, we organized the
results according to themes that appear common in the literature.
Our initial keyword search, after eliminating duplicates, yielded 1202 potential studies
(Fig. 1). We discarded 966 of these after screening the titles, publication type, and
abstracts, and we selected 236 studies for full-text reading. From those studies meeting
our criteria, we searched their references for relevant publications and contacted 60 first
authors (we could not locate 4 email addresses), half of whom responded. We also
contacted 37 contributors from the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers
(we could not locate 14 email addresses), of whom 9 responded. We also examined the
references from six relevant reviews
(Bugarin 2008; Eickelkamp 2010; Herzog 1974;
Hewlett 2014; Keith 2008; MacDonald 2007)
. This yielded another 340 publications
for full-text reading. The 58 publications that provided information addressing our three
questions on learning subsistence skills were included in the present study.
Of the 58 publications that we included, 7 (12%) use experimental data to answer
their questions, 5 (9%) use narrative accounts of learning, 30 (51%) use quantitative
data, and 33 (57%) use qualitative data.1 The earliest publication in our list is from
1939, with the great majority (39 vs. 19) being produced after the year 2000 and
particularly in the past 5 years (2010–2015; 26 papers) (Fig. 2). Our list includes studies
on 34 different cultures—plus two general studies of Australian Aboriginals—from
five continents (Table 1).
Our team identified five themes to organize our results: learning methods, learning
to harvest and to hunt and trap small game, learning to hunt big game, learning to make
material culture, and the impact of strength and skill on the age of skill acquisition. 18
studies (31%) explicitly focus on three learning methods: teaching (11 studies),
overimitation (4 studies), and innovation (3 studies). 37 studies (64%) focus on children
learning to gather and to hunt and trap small game. The authors argued that same-sex
vertical transmission (8 studies), observation (15 studies), play (15 studies), and
participation (20 studies) are especially common ways to learn these skills, and thus
we outline each of these separately. 10 studies (17%) discuss learning to hunt big game.
11 studies (19%) focus on how children learned to make material culture. Finally, 5
studies (9%) focus on determining whether strength, skill, and experience are factors in
the age of skill acquisition.
Though the process of learning is widely discussed in the publications, some works are
more specifically focused on learning processes such as teaching, imitation, and
innovation. We address those specialized papers here.
Teaching When teaching is not limited to Western-style direct instruction but is
defined to include demonstration, commands, and positive and negative feedback,
many authors have found that teaching does play a role in forager children’s learning.
In fact, a series of four studies based on systematic behavioral observations of the Aka
1 Some use more than one method. For this reason, the total is >100%.
found, unsurprisingly, that the Aka style of teaching is qualitatively different from
teaching in WEIRD societies
(Boyette 2013; Boyette and Hewlett 2017; Hewlett and
Roulette 2016; B. S. Hewlett et al. 2011)
. In addition, these authors found that, among
the Aka, teachers are more likely to be biologically related to the learner in question,
and that mothers are the most significant contributors to teaching. Specifically,
Boyette’s (2013; Boyette and Hewlett 2017) cross-cultural study of teaching among
Aka foragers and Ngandu farmers found that direct instruction does occur among both
groups, but it is significantly more common among the Ngandu. Boyette also found
that commands are the most frequent form of teaching for both groups, though the
Ngandu tend to be commanded specifically to perform work tasks, whereas Aka
children are commanded to perform behaviors across various skill domains. Negative
feedback is the next most common form of teaching for the Aka and is usually in
response to breaches of social norms, especially sharing
. Finally, in the
case of children teaching other children, children are most likely to be taught by those
older than them, and by same-sexed children
(Boyette and Hewlett 2017)
Another broad theme across many ethnographic studies is the importance placed on
children’s autonomy in their own learning process, meaning that adults prefer to allow
children to observe and experiment with minimal interference. Among people as broadly
ranging as the San
(Draper and Cashdan 1988)
, and Yukaghir
, adults actively refrain from
instructing, directing, explaining, or correcting, valuing firsthand knowledge gained by the
child through personal experience over any kind of secondhand knowledge. Learning is
therefore characterized by processes of trial and error and is embedded in the context of
living in close quarters, and having the opportunity to observe others through everyday tasks
. Among the Dene, individual autonomy and learning in
childhood are not competing aims, with children actively provided with opportunities to
watch an especially careful but silent version of a task, rather than explicit instruction
(Christian and Gardner 1977)
. And although the Dene consider paying attention critical to
learning, at no point do they insist that the learner pay attention. Similarly,
described a scene in which an adult was stretching a hide. Next to him, a child watched his
actions intently, but the man did not change his behavior to accommodate the child.
Children in these contexts initiate their own learning; experiment with objects, bodies,
and feelings; and adjust their behavior according to the results of their actions.
both argued that such learning leads to diverse
understandings, with no attempt to form a systematic and unified standard form of either social or
practical knowledge. Similarly,
highlighted that among the Batek, though
instruction does occur, personal experience of moving in the forest, monitoring one’s own
skills, and training one’s body is considered the best way of acquiring knowledge.
Overimitation Though imitation is a common form of children’s learning across the
world, researchers have recently become interested in how culture influences the
Two studies (one by Nielsen and one by Fouts) discussed more than one culture and are counted twice in this
table. Nielsen included both the San and Aboriginal Australians. Fouts included both Aka and Bofi foragers
frequency of overmitation as a way of pinpointing basic differences in how children
learn. Using experimental designs, many studies have found overimitation to be
common in WEIRD children, but among hunter-gatherer children the results are more
mixed. Four studies exist that are specifically on foragers, and all use puzzle boxes in
their experimental design
(Nielsen et al. 2016; Nielsen and Tomaselli 2010; Nielsen
et al. 2014a)
. Nielsen and colleagues have conducted four studies on overimitation
comparing Brisbane preschoolers, San hunter-gatherers from Botswana and South
Africa, and/or Australian Aboriginal children, all ranging in age from two to six. They
found that, across the board, hunter-gatherer children overimitated at the same
frequency as Brisbane children. In contrast with these findings, Berl and Hewlett (2015) found
that Aka children ranging in age from four to seven engaged in overimitation far less
than Ngandu farmer children of the same age, and less than Aka adults, though all
participants were more likely to perform the irrelevant actions than not.
Innovation Three studies specifically on forager children’s ability to innovate suggest that
innovative behaviors do not fully emerge until adulthood, but that these innovations are then
transmitted primarily to adolescents. Nielsen et al. (2014b) used an experimental design to
determine whether South African San and Brisbane children between the ages of three and
five could innovate new tools to fetch a toy from a bucket. The children had access to a
multitude of tools, including a pipe cleaner that could be bent to retrieve the toy. The results
indicate that few children chose the pipe cleaner as their first tool. Half of the children were
unable to innovate a tool to retrieve the toy. However, once these children were shown how
to produce the tool—for example, shape the pipe cleaner into a hook—nearly all were
capable of producing and using them. Thus, Nielsen argued that innovative behaviors are not
yet fully developed in early childhood, irrespective of culture. Hewlett has also conducted a
study of innovation among Chabu
found that, in both groups, adults were the key innovators. Adolescents sought prestigious
innovators who could teach well, irrespective of how far away they lived. Furthermore,
adolescents affirmed that they utilized innovations to find a mate, and also to provide for their
families. According to Hewlett, adolescents are more likely to seek out innovative teachers
than children or other adults, and these teachers are usually not their parents.
Learning to Forage and to Hunt and Trap Small Game
For hunter-gatherers, learning subsistence skills begins early in life. In infancy, children
accompany parents, especially mothers, on foraging expeditions, where they have ample
opportunity to watch subsistence activities
(Hewlett et al. 2011; Lye 1997)
. Children in
infancy and early childhood also play with their parents’ tools, including potentially
dangerous ones such as machetes
(Hewlett et al. 2011; Lewis 2002; Lye 1997)
described parents making toy versions of fishing lines, baskets, digging sticks, spears, and
bows and arrows for children across cultures, including the Gidra (Nishiaki 2013), Batek
(Dira and Hewlett 2016)
et al. 2011; Neuwelt-Truntzer 1981)
, Comanche (Wallace and Hoebel 1952), Hadza
, and the San
. Among the Batek, by two years of age
children are already learning ecological taxonomies (Lye 1997). By the age of six, Meriam,
San, Batek, Chabu, and Pitjantjatjara children have an understanding of environmental
(Bliege Bird and Bird 2002; Dira and Hewlett 2016; Ilyatjari 1991; Imamura and
Akiyama 2016; Lye 1997)
. These are learned from parents
(Bird and Bliege Bird 2002)
(Dira and Hewlett 2016)
. By adolescence, at the latest, various authors note
that children are already competent food collectors, though they may refine more complex
skills, such as hunting, throughout their adult life
(Crittenden 2016; Dira and Hewlett 2016;
Gallois et al. 2015; Hewlett and Cavalli-Sforza 1986; Lye 1997)
. The major ways that
children learn varying foraging skills include same-sex vertical transmission, observation,
play, and participation. We address the results for each of these learning mechanisms in turn.
Same-sex Vertical Transmission Hewlett and Cavalli-Sforza (1986),
, among others, have
argued that children learn many foraging skills through vertical transmission from
same-sex parents. For example, among the Gros Ventre, formal training for skills
necessary to women’s work, such as collecting berries and digging roots, comes from
. Among the Sioux, mothers are the primary transmitters
of food preparation knowledge, shelter building, and hide work to their daughters
. For the Aka, parents are the primary transmitters of food acquisition
skills, with fathers generally transmitting skills to their sons, and mothers, to their
(Hewlett 2012; Hewlett and Cavalli-Sforza 1986)
. For example, Aka men
know more than women about hunting, and therefore fathers contribute more to the
acquisition of those skills. Demps et al. (2012) argued that Jenu Keruba fathers are also
particularly important in transmitting knowledge about honey collecting—an activity
typically performed by men—to sons between the ages of six and nine.
Observation Observation appears to be central to how forager children establish
competency in many foraging tasks while still very young
(Boyette 2013; Burgesse
1944; Draper 1976; Flannery 1953; Harris 1980; Imamura and Akiyama 2016;
Ohmagari and Berkes 1997; Tonkinson 1978; Vanstone 1965)
. For example, Morelli
et al. (2003) noted that Efe children between the ages of two and three spent a quarter of
the authors’ scan observations observing work. Indeed,
argued more generally that Aka children spend much of their time simply watching
all adult activities. Children are, after all, almost constantly in view of adults,
particularly when they are very young
(Draper 1976; Hewlett et al. 2011; Lye 1997)
noted that, among the Nayaka, children watch adults set traps and then simply
practice trap setting themselves. Jenu Kuruba adolescent boys learn to make smoky
torches and cut honeycombs by observing older kin as they collect honey from
locations too dangerous or difficult for the children to actually participate in the process
(Demps et al. 2012)
Play The authors we include emphasize play as a crucial method for children to learn
foraging skills. According to
Morelli et al. (2003)
, Efe children spend significantly more
time emulating adult activities in play than American children. Boyette (2013, 2016) and
Gallois et al. (2015)
found that, as children grow older, they play less and work more,
suggesting that play helps them learn subsistence behaviors. In comparing Aka and Bofi
foragers with Bofi farmers,
Fouts et al. (2016)
found that, though Bofi farmer children
between the ages of one and four participated in more work-themed play than their foraging
counterparts, forager children were in closer proximity to adults and were more likely to
use objects when performing work-themed play. Parental beliefs may contribute to cultural
beliefs with regard to play;
argued that Aka parents believe that if
children do not play, they will fail to learn. Among a vast cross-cultural sample including
the Mbendjele, Hadza, San, Katetye, Aka, Mardudjara, Pitjantjatjara, Chippewayans, and
Gros Ventre, children build small huts and hearths
(Crittenden 2016; Flannery 1953;
Ilyatjari 1991; Lewis 2002; Neuwelt-Truntzer 1981; Shostak 1976; Thompson 2003;
Tonkinson 1978; Vanstone 1965)
. Near these huts, children pretend to dig yams, to hunt,
and pretend to be animals. Through these kinds of games, children also learn
suggested that children who play hunted animals in
such games vocalize the animal’s feelings, fears, and emotions. Through this activity,
children learn to sympathize with animals and to see animals as sentient persons sharing the
forest world with them.
Participation Children do not just observe their parents’ subsistence activities; they also
learn through participation. In fact, among the Aka,
children may be included in any adult activity.
also noted that Aka girls
learned to forage by walking in the forest with their parents. Sonoda
described adults acknowledging Baka children when they enter situations where hunting
and gathering is taking place, and giving the children access to resources. Both adolescents
and adults help children learn through participation by providing them with verbal
instruction and other subtle forms of teaching. According to
Dira and Hewlett (2016)
Chabu adults allow children and adolescents to participate in the killing of animals.
mentioned that Chippewayan children learn adult skills and attitudes by
participating directly in the household economy. From early childhood onward, Baka
children are also expected to participate in household chores, such as fetching water and
(Gallois et al. 2015)
. Among the Cree, women report hands-on experience as the
primary way they learn a variety of skills as children and adolescents, including fur
preparation, food preparation, camp-related skills, hunting, fishing, and trapping
(Ohmagari and Berkes 1997)
. That being said,
Draper and Cashdan (1988)
the work of San parents, such as nut cracking, is more efficiently done by adults, and the
nature of this work can make it difficult for children to participate.
At times, however, children participate in adult activities without adults being
present, shifting the locus of learning to child-to-child knowledge transmission.
noted that in middle childhood, children participate in work
groups in which they display self-reliant behaviors such as food harvesting. Indeed,
highlighted the importance of “learning by doing” that occurs within
Gallois et al. (2015)
described children collecting wild foods and roasting them on their own hearths. In
argued that children are the only Hadza who harvest
weaverbirds, a skill primarily transmitted within the playgroup. Among the Meriam and
Martu, details and strategies for foraging are learned through other children, and
children make decisions to optimize their foraging returns based on their size and
(Bird and Bliege Bird 2002, 2005; Bliege Bird and Bird 2002)
Tucker and Young (2005)
noted that Mikea children allocate as much time to foraging
as do adolescents. Thus foraging emerges as an extension of play. For example, they
described children harvesting tubers (work), and then having a food fight (play) with
those same tubers.
Gallois et al. (2015)
also highlighted that though children are not
expected to participate in economic activities, they do so out of enjoyment. Jenu
Kuruba children learn to climb trees to collect honey through games played with their
(Demps et al. 2012)
. Through these playgroups, older children also
transmit early hunting skills
(Crittenden 2016; Hewlett et al. 2011; Imamura 2016;
Imamura and Akiyama 2016; Thompson 2003)
. It is through older children that San
children learn how to bait traps, for example
(Imamura 2016; Imamura and Akiyama
. Through peer group participation, Baka children learn to identify edible wild
plants, navigate the landscape, and use increasingly complex tools (Gallois et al. 2015).
Learning Big-Game Hunting
Hunting is one of the most difficult skills that children, primarily boys, learn. Though
children seem to become proficient at small-game hunting relatively early in life, big-game
hunting may require a lifetime to master. At first, much of this learning process takes the
form of translating observed adult activities into organized games played with peer groups.
A hide-and-seek game played by the Ongee, for example, helps children develop the
skillset to find animals hiding in the bush
. Among the Chabu, children play
collaborative role-playing games of hunter and hunted
(Dira and Hewlett 2016)
Nisa, a San woman, described playing at hunting during her childhood
. Nisa and her friends followed tracks, and when they spotted prey, they shot
makebelieve arrows at them. Then, they took leaves and put them on a stick, pretended it was
meat, and carried it back to the village. Among the Mbendjele, Pitjantjatjara, and Kaytetye,
spear-throwing games and other target practice, such as boomerang competitions, are
important for developing accuracy
(Ilyatjari 1991; Lewis 2002; Thompson 2003)
Similarly, according to Wallace and Hoebel (1952), peer-group learning is central to Comanche
children’s development of shooting accuracy.
Yet hunting seems also to be one of the most prominent exceptions to the general
lack of direct instruction among hunter-gatherers, likely because of the complexity of
hunting. And, in several cases, direct instruction in hunting-related skills begins in early
childhood. Around the ages of six or seven, Chabu children listen to hunting stories by
(Dira and Hewlett 2016)
. These stories transmit important information
regarding animal sign and behavior, as well as dangers associated with hunting. Batek
children learn to imitate animal sounds by age six, and they regularly practice dart
hunting by age nine
. Before adolescence, Batek children are already
proficient at hunting birds and squirrels.
During adolescence, children in many cultures receive prominent direct instruction
in hunting skills. Among the Chabu,
Dira and Hewlett (2016)
demonstration, verbal instruction, pointing, and teasing as important teaching processes
when adolescents are learning to hunt from their mentors. For the Penan, for whom
extensive speaking in the forest is taboo, teachers help children learn to hunt by
pointing and describing actions, by providing children with opportunities to watch
hunting, and by imitating bird and animal calls
. Among both the Chabu and
the Batek, boys choose their hunting teachers
(Dira and Hewlett 2016; Lye 1997)
trail these hunters and are tutored by them. Chabu adolescents choose teachers based on
their hunting ability, skill as teachers, or knowledge of ecology. Chabu adolescents
primarily learn to spear hunt from other adults as well as peers, beginning between the
ages of nine and twelve. For Penan boys (and sometimes girls), fathers, uncles, and
other elders are the primary teachers of hunting skills between the ages of four and
fourteen; older boys between ages 14 and 20 learn hunting with peers (Puri 2005).
Wallace and Hoebel (1952)
argued that Comanche grandfathers specifically are heavily
involved in teaching their grandsons to ride horses, shoot, and hunt.
Learning to Make Material Culture
Studies of how children learn to produce material culture seem to demonstrate that such
skills are transmitted mostly vertically, from parents to offspring, and also commonly
from older children. As one might expect, in many cases children begin to learn craft
skills by making small-scaled versions of items such as bows, arrows, and sledges. In a
study of how Baka children spend the majority of their time,
Gallois et al. (2015)
determined that they participate in subsistence and leisure activities more frequently
than in handicrafts. This trend generally holds true among the publications included
here; that is to say, hunter-gatherers do not seem to emphasize structured instruction on
creating material culture, especially among their younger children.
During early and middle childhood, children continue to learn from models, and the
role of other children in their learning process becomes more prominent. Between the
ages of four and five, Batek
(Imamura 2016; Imamura and Akiyama
, and Kaytetye (Thompson 2003) children begin making their own tools. In these
cases, parents gift children with bows and arrows while they are still too young to use the
tools, let alone to produce them. Among the Batek
, parents correct children’s
mistakes on tool construction; among the San
(Imamura 2016; Imamura and Akiyama
and Kaytetye (Thompson 2003), younger children imitate older children to learn
how to construct these tools, and they are also corrected by other children. By ages four
and five, San and Batek children have constructed the bows and arrows they will use to
hunt birds and lizards until adolescence
(Imamura 2016; Lye 1997)
argued that Gidra parents intend their gifts to be a form of education. Rather than directly
teaching children how to produce bows and arrows, parents gift them with well-made
scale models from which they are expected to reverse-engineer their own tools. This
may also be true among the Aka, who made fragments of nets available to children so
they can examine them
. Gidra children do not skillfully
produce bows and arrows until approximately 14 years old. On the other hand,
Imamura and Akiyama (2016)
argued that, after mothers first gift their two- to
threeyear-old sons with bows and arrows, the boys then refine their skills in bowmaking and
in the hunting of small game largely with the help of older boys.
emphasized the role of older San boys as well, stating that older children will take over
and complete toys for younger children when they are struggling with the skill.
Direct instruction from adult to child in the production of material culture seems to be
clustered later in childhood and in early adolescence, when children begin producing more
complex material culture. Other handicraft skills, including basketry
(Erikson 1939; Ohmagari and Berkes 1997)
, and the production of skis,
sledges, and canoes (Jordan 2014), seem to be taught using vertical and oblique
transmission in late childhood to early adolescence.
argued the Khanty
transmit skills such as ski, sledge, and canoe production vertically, and that children learn
from observation, imitation, and direct instruction. When learning to construct sledges,
children in late childhood create exact models of adult sledges. Cree women report learning
hideworking skills between the ages of 11 and 16, mostly from hands-on experience and
(Ohmagari and Berkes 1997)
. Sioux hideworking is learned early on,
primarily from mothers
. Among the Penan,
found that women
report beginning to learn basketmaking at age 14, on average, whereas males begin
somewhat later, at 17. However, he acknowledged that among some families, for whom
basket making is especially important, children begin to learn as early as age eight. Because
men and women make and use different baskets, boys tend to learn from men and girls
from women, usually family members but not necessarily parents.
Strength, Size, Skill and Experience in Foraging Proficiency
Though this review is primarily concerned with learning in childhood, we include
studies concerning how body size and strength as opposed to skill and experience
can impact foraging proficiency. Children’s learning processes are, after all, framed
by their size and their relative lack of experience. Overall, these studies find that
the more complex the activity, such as hunting in particular, the more important
experience may be.
Walker et al. (2002)
, working with the Ache, conducted an
experimental and quantitative observational study on individuals ranging from 12
to 40+ years of age. The authors found that prey finding rates peak in the late
thirties, as do hunting abilities. However, ability to hunt monkeys, one of the most
difficult prey in the Ache ecosystem, peaks in the forties.
Walker et al. (2002)
found that previous lack of experience adversely affects hunting ability. Similarly,
, working with the Gidra, found that, independent of strength and
size, individuals between the ages of 35 and 45 have four times the hunting
success of teenagers and young adults. These two studies suggest that strength is
less important than skill in hunting proficiency.
found that Gidra
boys hunt a larger variety of animals as they grow older. These expand from small
animals, which are easy to hunt, to larger animals, which can be hunted with
developed skills. Though older boys vary in success rates, Kawabe suggested that
this is related to differences in environmental knowledge, not arrow shooting
Hewlett and Cavalli-Sforza (1986)
found that though Aka
girls and boys between the ages of seven and twelve have developed a majority
of their foraging skills, only the boys will continue to increase their skills in net
hunting and other hunting techniques through adolescence and adulthood.
Other individual components of hunting activity, such as shooting accuracy, seem to
require less experience to achieve proficiency. And some simpler foraging activities,
such as tuber digging or tree climbing, require a baseline of strength, after which
increased experience does not significantly improve returns. In an experimental study
with the Hadza, Blurton Jones and Marlowe (2002) considered the importance of
practice in proficiency at tree-climbing, target shooting with bows and arrows, and
tuber digging through an “Olympics”-style competition, including children,
adolescents, and adults of both sexes. The authors found that women and men were
equally proficient at digging tubers, despite the fact that women had significantly more
experience doing so. Similarly, the authors found that adolescents who attend boarding
school were just as proficient at climbing trees and just as accurate in shooting as their
unschooled peers, despite having practiced these skills less.
no remarkable difference between schooled and unschooled Gidra boys in some
foraging tasks, possibly because schooled boys take advantage of hunting opportunities
when they return to the village during long vacation.
These results indicate a meta-ethnographic approach has utility for answering the kind
of broad ethnographic and evolutionary questions we have posed here; how do children
learn subsistence skills, from whom do they learn them, and how long does it take to
reach proficiency? In recent years, a growing number of researchers have been
interested in these questions. However, this interest is unevenly distributed, with the
San and the Aka receiving the most consistent attention on learning in childhood. This
is likely due to the interests of researchers such as Patricia Draper and Barry and
Bonnie Hewlett, who have contributed immensely to the field of learning in
huntergatherer childhood. However, this represents an African bias in the literature. More
studies are needed on learning in childhood among foragers on other continents.
Nonetheless, taken cumulatively, the studies demonstrate that social learning occurs
before individual learning among hunter-gatherers, which aligns with what several authors
have predicted to be the most adaptive progression of learning. Our results also emphasize
the importance of observation, participation, and same-sex parental transmission in
learning subsistence skills. In particular, the playgroup and playful learning allow forager
children to take increasing responsibility for provisioning themselves (though they do
not always do so) without considering subsistence activities to be a burden. Our results
clearly show that teaching exists among hunter-gatherers in the form of feedback and
demonstration. Direct instruction appears to be largely reserved for adolescents, and for
complex skills such as hunting and multicomponent toolmaking. We have found that
adolescents are not innovators, but they are the primary acquirers of innovative behaviors.
And, finally, our results suggest that while innovation may not explain our extended
childhoods, children do spend their entire childhoods learning the complexities of hunting
in particular. They do not, however, require an entire extended human adolescence to
become proficient foragers of many plants and small game. In order to unpack our results
more fully, we address the following points in our discussion: (1) Does teaching,
overimitation, and innovation occur during hunter-gatherer childhood? (2) How and from
whom do children learn? and (3) Does it take 20 years to learn to hunt and gather?
Teaching, Overimitation, and Innovation
In the debate about teaching among hunter-gatherers, our results demonstrate a stark divide
between ethnographic studies, which generally argue against the presence of teaching, and
quantitative approaches, which find that it does occur. We would argue this debate is
largely the result of a lack of consensus about the definition of teaching itself. We support
Kline’s (2015) integrative definition of teaching, which includes the following behaviors:
teaching by social tolerance, teaching by providing opportunities, teaching by stimulus or
local enhancement, teaching by evaluative feedback, and direct, active teaching. Using this
broad definition, we argue that each of these teaching styles exists to varying degrees in
hunter-gatherer populations. For example, teaching through local enhancement occurs
when children help butcher an animal
(e.g., Dira and Hewlett 2016)
. Teaching through
evaluative feedback occurs when parents correct children’s toolmaking
(e.g., Jordan 2014)
When children actively watch an adult tanning a hide, they are experiencing social
(e.g., Draper 1976)
. Direct, active teaching also seems to occur, but is rare, and
is most commonly used in adolescence to learn skills such as hunting and complex tool
(e.g., Dira and Hewlett 2016)
. However, even where direct teaching does occur
among hunter-gatherers, it is qualitatively different than classroom teaching. It is specific to
context—such as being out on a hunt—and depends on the child’s willing participation.
Because the current teaching debate seems to hinge so heavily on semantics, we hope that
researchers will adopt a more holistic definition like Kline’s, which would foster
interdisciplinary conversation on the topic.
The varying results we report here on overimitation, with San and Aboriginal children
found to overimitate much more prominently than Aka children, may be the result of
compulsory Western schooling. The San and Aboriginal groups studied by Nielsen et al.
(2014a) have access to classroom-based schools
(Berl and Hewlett 2015)
. The Aka children
studied did not. Children quickly learn to defer to teachers in a school setting and thus are
more likely to imitate adults’ relevant and irrelevant actions. Indeed, some studies suggest
that children generally are more likely to copy adults than they are to copy other children
(Wood et al. 2012; Zmyj and Seehagen 2012)
. Among hunter-gatherers, though, autonomy
and egalitarianism reduce the degree to which any individual defers to another based on age,
gender, or status
(Lewis 2014; Woodburn 1982)
. Since schooling often acts as a tool to
incorporate marginal groups into the dominant culture, it seems likely that not only cultural
values, but also learning processes, change
(Berl and Hewlett 2015; Mesoudi et al. 2015)
Further research into the presence of overimitation in foraging societies with differing access
to schools could, therefore, provide important insight into how foraging children’s learning
processes change. Furthermore, future research should also examine the degree to which
social goals, such as group membership, and learning goals, such as proficiency at a given
task, influence imitative behaviors
(Over and Carpenter 2012, 2013)
Some have argued that the extension of childhood can be explained as an adaptation
that provides children time to develop innovative behaviors
(Bateson 2014; Carruthers
. Specifically, children’s play may be crucial to the development of the kind of
human innovation that allowed anatomically modern humans to inhabit every ecosystem
on the globe (Carruthers 2002). Yet, among modern hunter-gatherers our results do not
support extended juvenility as time used for innovation. They do, however, potentially
support the hypothesis that the skills learned in childhood create a foundation for future
innovation during adulthood. Children cross-culturally do not appear to truly innovate, in
the sense that they do not generally create new technologies or significantly different
foraging methods for themselves
. Instead, our results suggest that forager
children act as problem-solvers—using combinations of all of their knowledge in flexible
iterations so they are prepared to truly innovate in adulthood
(e.g., Naveh 2014)
example, Meriam children make their own decisions about resource choice, decisions that
are couched in their background knowledge of the dangers and opportunities of the reef as
(Bliege Bird and Bird 2002)
. Indeed, Hewlett (2013) found that Aka adolescents
seek out very skilled innovators to learn from, but they themselves do not innovate.
Instead, children’s propensity for engaging in group social learning earlier in life and in
innovation later on allows them to quickly gain a wide base of knowledge, which they can
update with their own innovations as adults
(Aoki et al. 2012)
How and from Whom Do Children Learn?
Lehmann et al. (2013)
argued that vertical transmission is most adaptive during infancy
and early childhood, and that horizontal transmission and innovative, individual
learning should occur throughout the rest of childhood. Our results support this pattern.
In infancy we find that parents, not siblings, are primary caregivers
, and thus vertical transmission is common at this age. Many studies
find same-sex vertical transmission to be especially important. Mothers teach their
daughters gendered skills such as hide tanning, while fathers teach their sons to hunt.
Parents have also been found to the primary transmitters of social skills, such as sharing
. In early and middle childhood, both horizontal and oblique (child)
transmission are important. Older children correct the tool manufacture of younger ones
and show them how to bait traps
(Imamura and Akiyama 2016)
. Play is also an
important medium for horizontal transmission (Crittenden 2016). In adolescence, both
oblique and vertical transmission are important for teaching and demonstrating more
complex tasks, such as multicomponent tool manufacture and hunting
. Again, somewhat contrary to Lehmann et al.’s (2013) expectations,
we do not find truly innovative behaviors emerging until after adolescence.
Specifically, our results emphasize the importance of children’s playgroups for learning
subsistence skills, especially in middle childhood. Hunter-gatherer children are active
learners who participate in learning by choice, and for whom learning is an ongoing,
playful activity, not separated from the rest of life. Our results show again and again the
prominence of what
Gaskins and Paradise (2009)
call “open attention,” a form of learning
found in small-scale societies where children are in such constant contact with adults and
older children as they work that learning occurs without the child or the “teacher”
specifically intending it. In these contexts, learning may be an “incidental byproduct of
(Gaskins and Paradise 2009:85)
. This type of learning is exemplified by our
findings that, cross-culturally, children continue to participate in foraging activities even
when away from adults. This is markedly different from studies of small-scale farmers that
emphasize a compulsory chore curriculum
(Gaskins and Paradise 2009; Lancy 2012)
would seem that, through play, forager children can offset the cost of their burden of care,
reducing the need for direct parental teaching.
This finding highlights Crittenden’s (2016) and
Tucker and Young’s (2005)
argument that play and work should not be distinguished since they are not distinguished by
forager children themselves. Indeed, it would seem that, at least in the hunter-gatherer
context, both play and work are a form of participation, and children transition
seamlessly between the two. This finding supports arguments about the primacy of
play in learning made by Bock and colleagues
(Bock 2002, 2005; Bock and Johnson
, and the sociocultural approach to learning
(John-Steiner and Mahn 1996; Lancy
. In his work with the Okavango Delta peoples, Bock (2005) found that children
trade-off play with work, depending on the needs of the household and the complexity
of the task at hand. For example, the playing at pounding grain allowed girls to practice
this task without wasting grain, and boys’ participation in target games diminished as
participation in actual hunting increased. These findings are supported by Boyette
(2013, 2016) and
Gallois et al. (2015)
, who also found that play and work traded off
with age. Small-game hunting and trapping, which we found to be primarily learned in
the playgroup, are excellent examples of these types of activities, wherein children can
begin to assist in provisioning themselves while also learning important skills for later
hunting of larger animals. Others, such as
Göncü et al. (2006)
, suggest that play helps
children situate themselves within a cultural world. Our findings that foraging children
imitate the entire structure of adult subsistence activities through their play, such as
building small huts and cooking their own foods on their own small hearths, supports
Does It Take 20 Years to Learn to Hunt and Gather?
Yet another hypothetical driver for humans’ extended juvenility is our need for an
extended period of learning
(Kaplan and Robson 2002)
. So does it take 20 years for a
modern hunter-gatherer child to learn to hunt and gather? Yes and no. In many ways,
children are competent foragers by the end of late childhood, able to make simple tools,
to gather plants and to hunt small animals, and even to make optimal foraging decisions
about which resources they can most effectively exploit. However, the most complex
skills of a hunter-gatherer’s life, such as big-game hunting, ecological knowledge, or
the production of multicomponent tools, seem to be learned at the very latest stages of
childhood and into adulthood. And these findings do not seem to be restricted to
egalitarian foraging populations. Among the Tsimane, Bolivian forager-horticulturalists
who fish and hunt extensively, a series of studies on hunting skills
(Gurven et al. 2006;
Schniter et al. 2015)
argued that learning itself, not physical development or body size,
seemed to determine hunting success. In fact, although Gurven et al. (2006) found that
indirect encounters with game are most frequent in individuals’ mid-twenties, overall
kill rates across multiple categories of game did not peak until age thirty-nine. Thus, the
integration of all of a child’s individual skills into his or her maximum foraging
potential may not occur until far past his or her transition into adulthood. This finding
supports the theory that humans require a long juvenile period to learn to extract
complex resources, though they do not need that long to learn all of their constituent
(Kaplan and Robson 2002)
Through the years, more and more studies have focused on how foraging children learn
subsistence skills. This meta-ethnography has allowed us to draw broad cross-cultural
patterns from that positive trend in research. In infancy, children accompany parents on
subsistence tasks and are given small versions of tools such as digging sticks and bows
and arrows. During the transition from infancy to early childhood, when children join
playgroups, they learn a majority of their subsistence skills, such as harvesting,
trapping, small-game hunting, and some elements of honey harvesting, such as tree
climbing. Children learn these skills through a variety of mechanisms, including
participation in activities with adults and other children, through play, and via
observation. It would seem that most children are proficient at these skills by the end of
middle childhood. However, skills such as hunting, making complex tools, and learning
innovative behaviors—skills that are more difficult and potentially more hazardous—
continue to be learned into adolescence. These skills especially are learned obliquely,
from expert adults, though parents seem to be prominent in teaching about material
culture. The more complex the skill, the more common teaching seems to be. Finally,
our results suggest that learning to hunt continues into adulthood.
A large-scale meta-ethnography will necessarily have limitations brought on by the
sheer breadth of our sources, both in age and in methods. We did not include studies
with general, passing mentions of learning, meaning that fragmentary observations in
the literature are missing from this work. Many of the studies we did include only
address positive observations without referencing the absence of specific behaviors,
potentially introducing further bias. And, the relatively qualitative nature of our results
and discussion means that we translated some quantitative results into qualitative
findings, potentially misrepresenting their magnitude. Furthermore, many of the
publications used different methods that are difficult to compare, especially as they were
published over a 77-year timespan. However, because we are attempting to address
extremely broad trends in hunter-gatherer behavior, it is our hope that these limitations
are counteracted by the sheer quantity of data we include.
As we consider all of the papers included in this study, several general gaps in
research become apparent. First, perhaps unsurprisingly, many papers focus on hunting
activities; plant harvesting and other activities such as food preparation and childcare
are given much less attention. In fact, we found no studies on how children learn to
cook. Furthermore, studies on highly complex foraging activities such as medicinal
plant use are lacking, and studies of the methods and timing of broad traditional
ecological knowledge transmission are also scarce. This means, generally, that studies
of women’s subsistence skills and material culture are underrepresented. Similarly, we
only extracted two studies on learning to harvest honey.
hypothesized that eating honey may have had important implications for the evolution
of modern humans, and future studies should more thoroughly explore how honey
harvesting is learned. The second major gap we note is the lack of studies addressing
how children learn subsistence skills from one another. Specifically, we would be
interested in work addressing how same-sex children teach one another particular
skills. Such occurrences are mentioned obliquely in a number of our studies—boys
helping one another with bows, for example—but are not developed. Given the
emphasis we are seeing on peer group learning and the prevalence of vertical
transmission from same-sex parents, we wonder how extensively those two trends converge
in the form of same-sex children teaching one another. In addition, Africa is
overrepresented in studies on learning subsistence skills. We would welcome further studies
from Asia or South America. Another important oversight is the correlation between
how children learn and the degree to which they rely on foraged, farmed and/or
purchased food. Unfortunately, these data were rarely available in the papers surveyed,
so we did not include it. However, such data would make important contributions to
understanding how forager children’s learning behaviors change in association with
their dependence on foraged foods. Finally, very few studies include a narrative
approach in which foragers themselves explain how they learn, which would be
valuable for understanding how people see their own learning process.
The present research has important implications for broadly ranging fields.
Huntergatherer archaeologists find it especially difficult to pinpoint the role of children in the
creation of the material record. Collectively, these studies demonstrate the importance
of children in producing smaller versions of “adult” material culture, and they also
address the complexities of human innovation as a product of entire communities, a
topic that always preoccupies archaeologists. For psychologists and anthropologists
particularly interested in human evolution and life history, our findings have
implications for long-running debates about innovation, learning, and the reason for extended
human juvenility. Furthermore, this review can facilitate comparisons with other
research on small-scale agricultural, horticultural, and pastoral societies, to determine
the degree to which forager learning behaviors differ from, or are similar to, those of the
more commonly studied small-scale societies. Overall, it is our hope that the growing
trend in studying the learning processes of foraging children continues.
Acknowledgments We would like to thank the staff at King’s College library, Cambridge, who helped us find
hard-to-access books. Lew-Levy would like to acknowledge the Cambridge International Trust and the Social
Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (award number: 752-2016-0555) for support. Reckin would
like to thank the Gates Cambridge Trust for support. Thank you to the anonymous reviewers who provided
insightful comments on this paper. We would like to take this opportunity to clarify the authors’ roles in creating this
study. Lew-Levy sorted through the titles and abstracts to initially evaluate the studies using the inclusion criteria.
Lew-Levy, Reckin, Lavi, and Cristóbal-Azkarate made the final decisions on inclusion and read and coded the
studies. Lew-Levy, Reckin, and Lavi identified the major themes and drafted the manuscript, with Lew-Levy
providing figures, and Cristóbal-Azkarate and Ellis-Davis contributed to manuscript revisions. Ellis-Davies has
served in a supervisory role throughout the process of preparing this paper.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International
License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a
link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
Sheina Lew-Levy holds a BA in anthropology, an MPhil in human evolution, and is currently a PhD student
in the department of psychology at the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on social learning and
play among Mbendjele and Hadza forager children.
Rachel Reckin is a PhD student in archaeology at St John’s College, University of Cambridge. She holds a
MA in anthropology from the University of Wyoming and was formerly an archaeologist for the US Forest
Service. Her other research interests include human adaptations to high altitudes, paleoclimates, and variation
in lithic technology.
Noa Lavi is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Haifa. She holds a BA in
archaeology from Tel-Aviv University and an MA in anthropology from the University of Haifa. She studies
hunting and gathering people in India today, focusing on people’s experience and social relationships in light
of development intervention, assimilation pressure and school education.
Jurgi Cristóbal-Azkarate has a doctorate in veterinary science from the University of Zaragoza and a PhD in
primate behavior from the University of Barcelona. He conducted postdoctoral research at the Department of
Anthropology, University of Southern California, and has worked as a researcher and lecturer at the
universities of Veracruz, in Mexico, and Cambridge, in the UK. He concurrently works as a pedagogical
consultant in the Basque country of Spain.
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