Hunter-gatherer childhoods may offer clues to improving education and wellbeing

March 12, 2023

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Hunter-gatherer childhoods may offer clues to improving education and wellbeing

So many studies have shown us that the further we get from many of the hunter-gatherer ways of doing things the more stressed we become and the more we suffer from mental and physical illnesses. Having closely studied hunter-gatherers many decades ago, I was one of the first who came up with what is now called the “mismatch” theory—the profound differences between our H-G genetics and the way we now organize our society and work.

This new study looks at the mismatch as it applies to education and child rearing generally.

The researchers claim, rightly in my view, that hunter-gatherers can help us understand the conditions that children may be psychologically adapted to because we lived as hunter-gatherers for 95% of our evolutionary history. And paying greater attention to hunter-gatherer childhoods may help economically developed countries improve education and wellbeing.

Published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, a new study by an evolutionary anthropologist and a child psychiatrist, calls for new research into child mental health in hunter-gatherer societies. They explore the possibility that some common aspects of hunter-gatherer childhoods could help families in economically developed countries. Eventually, hunter-gatherer behaviors could inform ‘experimental intervention trials’ in homes, schools and nurseries.

The authors acknowledge that children living in hunter-gatherer societies live in very different environments and circumstances than those in developed countries. They also stress that hunter-gatherer children invariably face many difficulties that are not experienced in developed countries and, therefore, caution that these childhoods should not be idealized.

Drawing on their own observations of the BaYaka people in Congo and the extensive research of anthropologists studying other hunter-gatherer societies, the authors highlight major differences in the ways in which hunter-gatherer children are cared for compared to their peers in developed countries. They stress that “contemporary hunter-gatherers must not be thought of as ‘living fossils’, and while their ways of life may offer some clues about our prehistory, they are still very much modern populations each with a unique cultural and demographic history.”

Despite increasing uptake of baby carriers and baby massage in developed countries, levels of physical contact with infants remain far higher in hunter-gatherer societies. In Botswana, for instance, 10-20 week old !Kung infants are in physical contact with someone for around 90% of daylight hours, and almost 100% of crying bouts are responded to, almost always with comforting or nursing – scolding is extremely rare.

This is certainly something that I, and other researchers, have commented on. Reinforcement in H-G societies is almost always positive.

The study points out that this exceptionally attentive childcare is made possible because of the major role played by non-parental caregivers, or ‘alloparents’, which is far rarer in developed countries.

In many hunter-gatherer societies, alloparents provide almost half of a child’s care. A previous study found that in the DRC, Efe infants have 14 alloparents a day by the time they are 18 weeks old and are passed between caregivers eight times an hour. This was true also of the San people that I studied in what is now Namibia.

What the researchers say: “Parents now have much less childcare support from their familial and social networks than would likely have been the case during most of our evolutionary history. Such differences seem likely to create the kind of evolutionary mismatches that could be harmful to both caregivers and children,” said the anthropologist lead author.

“The availability of other caregivers can reduce the negative impacts of stress within the nuclear family, and the risk of maternal depression, which has knock-on effects for child wellbeing and cognitive development."

The study emphasizes that alloparenting is a core human adaptation, contradicting ‘intensive mothering’ narratives which emphasize that mothers should use their maternal instincts to manage childcare alone. The researchers write that “such narratives can lead to maternal exhaustion and have dangerous consequences.”

The study points out that communal living in hunter-gatherer societies results in a very high ratio of available caregivers to infants/toddlers, which can even exceed 10:1.

This contrasts starkly with the nuclear family unit, and even more so with nursery settings, in developed countries. According to the UK’s Department of Education regulations, nurseries require ratios of 1 carer to 3 children aged under 2 years, or 1 carer to 4 children aged 2-3.

The lead author said: “Almost all day, hunter-gatherer infants and toddlers have a capable caregiver within a couple of meters of them. From the infant’s perspective, that proximity and responsiveness, is very different from what is experienced in many nursery settings in the UK.”

In hunter-gatherer societies, children play a significantly bigger role in providing care to infants and toddlers than is the case in developed countries. In some communities they begin providing some childcare from the age of four and are capable of sensitive caregiving; and it is common to see older, but still pre-adolescent children looking after infants.

By contrast, the NSPCC in the UK recommends that when leaving pre-adolescent children at home, babysitters should be in their late teens at least. The H-Gs that I studied would find this very amusing.

“In developed countries, children are busy with schooling and may have less opportunity to develop caregiving competence. However, we should at least explore the possibility that older siblings could play a greater role in supporting their parents, which might also enhance their own social development,” the researchers surmised.

The study also points out that instructive teaching is rare in hunter-gatherer societies and that infants primarily learn via observation and imitation. From around the age of two, hunter-gatherer children spend large portions of the day in mixed-age (2-16) ‘playgroups’ without adult supervision. There, they learn from one another, acquiring skills and knowledge collaboratively via highly active play practice and exploration.

Learning and play are two sides of the same coin, which contrasts with the lesson-time / play-time dichotomy of schooling in the UK and other developed countries. This is something that we wrote about extensively in our book Raising an Optimistic Child.

The researchers note that “Classroom schooling is often at odds with the modes of learning typical of human evolutionary history.” The study acknowledges that children living in hunter-gather societies live in very different environments and circumstances than those in developed countries:

“Foraging skills are very different to those required to make a living in market-economies, and classroom teaching is certainly necessary to learn the latter. But children may possess certain psychological learning adaptations that can be practically harnessed in some aspects of their schooling. When peer and active learning can be incorporated, they have been shown to improve motivation and performance, and reduce stress.” The authors also highlight that physical activity interventions have been shown to aid performance among students diagnosed with ADHD.

So, what? We can’t go back to being H-Gs. And there is only a limited amount that we can learn from modern H-G bands. They have been interfered with too much. The best we can do is go back to earlier studies like the work of Colin Turnbull. I strongly recommend his The Forest People, a wonderful book written in 1961.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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