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An interdisciplinary research collaborative
investigating the pasts, presents, and futures of
forager & mixed-subsistence children's lives
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FCS member Sheina Lew-Levy, in collaboration with Felix Riede, Marc Malmdorf Andersen, and Ulrik Høj Johnsen are thrilled to share a new database for research use: Play Object Play, a database of toys and tools made for and/or used by children from subsistence societies.

Material culture is at the heart of human identity and ingenuity. The breadth and complexity of our toolkits have allowed us to adapt to diverse and challenging ecologies throughout our evolutionary history. By investigating the processes by which technology is modified and transmitted across generations, we are uniquely poised to inform how we may harness our species’ innovative potential to thrive in the face of unprecedented environmental change. Play|Object|Play (P|O|P) aims to bring object play and, crucially, play objects in focus. The project seeks to develop an integrative child-centred model of material culture change, drawing on emerging psychological and anthropological understandings of the cognitive and cultural processes by which children develop their tool making skill. The open-access and user-driven cross-cultural database of play objects from ethnographic and ethno-historic contexts is a key research tool in this endeavour.

FCS members Ilaria Pretelli and Sheina Lew-Levy, along with their collaborators, have just published a new paper in Evolutionary Anthropology titled "Child and adolescent foraging: New directions in evolutionary research". This integrative review highlights the important role of children's foraging practices in life history evolution, community resilience, and immune development.

Abstract: Young children and adolescents in subsistence societies forage for a wide range of resources. They often target child-specific foods, they can be very successful foragers, and they share their produce widely within and outside of their nuclear family. At the same time, while foraging, they face risky situations and are exposed to diseases that can influence their immune development. However, children's foraging has largely been explained in light of their future (adult) behavior. Here, we reinterpret findings from human behavioral ecology, evolutionary medicine and cultural evolution to center foraging children's contributions to life history evolution, community resilience and immune development. We highlight the need to foreground immediate alongside delayed benefits and costs of foraging, including inclusive fitness benefits, when discussing children's food production from an evolutionary perspective. We conclude by recommending that researchers carefully consider children's social and ecological context, develop cross-cultural perspectives, and incorporate children's foraging into Indigenous sovereignty discourse.

We're thrilled to share our most recent paper — "Toys as Teachers: A cross-cultural analysis of object use and enskillment in hunter–gatherer societies" — out now in the Journal of Archaeological Method & Theory, featuring FCS members Felix Riede, Sheina Lew-Levy, and Noa Lavi, in collaboration with Niels N. Johannesn, and Marc Malmdorf Andersen.

Abstract: Studies of cultural transmission—whether approached by archaeological or ethnographic means—have made great strides in identifying formal teaching and learning arrangements, which in turn can be closely aligned with models of social learning. While novices and apprentices are often in focus in such studies, younger children and their engagement with material culture have received less attention. Against the backdrop of a cross-cultural database of ethnographically documented object use and play in 54 globally distributed foraging communities, we here discuss the ways in which children make and use tools and toys. We provide a cross-cultural inventory of objects made for and by hunter–gatherer children and adolescents. We find that child and adolescent objects are linked to adult material culture, albeit not exclusively so. Toys and tools were primarily handled outside of explicit pedagogical contexts, and there is little evidence for formalised apprenticeships. Our data suggests that children’s self-directed interactions with objects, especially during play, has a critical role in early-age enskillment. Placed within a niche construction framework, we combine ethnographic perspectives on object play with archaeological evidence for play objects to offer an improved cross-cultural frame of reference for how social learning varies across early human life history and what role material culture may play in this process. While our analysis improves the systematic understanding of the role and relevance of play objects among hunter–gatherer societies, we also make the case for more detailed studies of play objects in the context of ethnographic, archival and archaeological cultural transmission research.

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