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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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In this exciting new article, now published in Science Advances, Ilaria Pretelli, Erik Ringen, and Sheina Lew-Levy conduct a meta-ethnographic review to examine how niche complexity relates to foraging skill development.


Our species’ long childhood is hypothesized to have evolved as a period for learning complex foraging skills. Researchers studying the development of foraging proficiency have focused on assessing this hypothesis, yet studies present inconsistent conclusions regarding the connection between foraging skill development and niche complexity. Here, we leverage published records of child and adolescent foragers from 28 societies to (i) quantify how skill-intensive different resources are and (ii) assess whether children’s proficiency increases more slowly for more skill-intensive resources. We find that foraging returns increase slowly for more skill-intensive, difficult-to-extract resources (tubers and game), consistent with peak productivity attained in adulthood. Foraging returns for easier-to-extract resources (fruit and fish/shellfish) increase rapidly during childhood, with adult levels of productivity reached by adolescence. Our findings support the view that long childhoods evolved as an extended period for learning to extract complex resources characteristic of the human foraging niche.

Continuing the string of cool new publications, FCS members Sheina Lew-Levy & Noa Lavi's & their colleagues' new paper examines hunter-gatherer children's object play and tool use through an ethnohistorical analysis of 54 hunter-gatherers societies.

Hunter-Gatherer Children’s Object Play and Tool Use: An Ethnohistorical Analysis

Abstract: Learning to use, make, and modify tools is key to our species’ success. Researchers have hypothesized that play with objects may have a foundational role in the ontogeny of tool use and, over evolutionary timescales, in cumulative technological innovation. Yet, there are few systematic studies investigating children’s interactions with objects outside the post-industrialized West. Here, we survey the ethnohistorical record to uncover cross-cultural trends regarding hunter-gatherer children’s use of objects during play and instrumental activities. Our dataset, consisting of 434 observations of children’s toys and tools from 54 hunter-gatherer societies, reveals several salient trends: Most objects in our dataset are used in play. Children readily manufacture their own toys, such as dolls and shelters. Most of the objects that children interact with are constructed from multiple materials. Most of the objects in our dataset are full-sized or miniature versions of adult tools, reflecting learning for adult roles. Children also engage with objects related to child culture, primarily during play. Taken together, our findings show that hunter-gatherer children grow up playing, making, and learning with objects.

Check out this terrific new paper from many of our own FCS members, led by Sheina Lew-Levy & Helen Davis, on children & adolescents' time allocation across 12 hunter-gatherer and mixed-subsistence forager societies.

Socioecology shapes child and adolescent time allocation in twelve hunter-gatherer and mixed-subsistence forager societies

Abstract: A key issue distinguishing prominent evolutionary models of human life history is whether prolonged childhood evolved to facilitate learning in a skill- and strength-intensive foraging niche requiring high levels of cooperation. Considering the diversity of environments humans inhabit, children’s activities should also reflect local social and ecological opportunities and constraints. To better understand our species’ developmental plasticity, the present paper compiled a time allocation dataset for children and adolescents from twelve hunter-gatherer and mixed-subsistence forager societies (n = 690; 3–18 years; 52% girls). We investigated how environmental factors, local ecological risk, and men and women’s relative energetic contributions were associated with cross-cultural variation in child and adolescent time allocation to childcare, food production, domestic work, and play. Annual precipitation, annual mean temperature, and net primary productivity were not strongly associated with child and adolescent activity budgets. Increased risk of encounters with dangerous animals and dehydration negatively predicted time allocation to childcare and domestic work, but not food production. Gender differences in child and adolescent activity budgets were stronger in societies where men made greater direct contributions to food production than women. We interpret these findings as suggesting that children and their caregivers adjust their activities to facilitate the early acquisition of knowledge which helps children safely cooperate with adults in a range of social and ecological environments. These findings compel us to consider how childhood may have also evolved to facilitate flexible participation in productive activities in early life.

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