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FCS members explore kinship learning at Children’s Acquisition of Kinship Knowledge: Theory and Meth

FCS’s Sheina Lew-Levy and Noa Lavi were at the Children’s Acquisition of Kinship Knowledge: Theory and Method Workshop in Bristol recently, exploring kinship learning among foragers in Congo and India. We were very grateful for the thoughtful and provocative conversation surrounding learning kinship and kinship terms. We are looking forward to exploring these ideas further!


Three Mbendjele cousins. Their mothers are sisters. They refer to each other as older and younger siblings. 

Changing relations, changing terms: Learning dynamic sociality and kinship among South Indian Nayaka foragers 

By Noa Lavi

Abstract: Kinship provides a framework for social organisation and order. As such, its terminology is usually learned by children as they begin to make sense of their social surroundings. Learning the proper kinship categories for each relative helps children locate themselves in the social network to which they will belong throughout their lives. However, the case of the Nayaka, a hunter-gatherer community living in the forested hills of the Nilgiri district in South India, presents an alternative usage and understanding of kinship concepts. Nayaka do not use fixed kinship terms. Kinship terms are flexible and change according to ad-hoc social relations. This pattern of relationality is not limited only to kinship terminology but is actually a fundamental notion that structures many aspects of people’s lives, including their notions of knowledge and knowledge acquisition. In fact, the entire process of Nayaka’s children development is based on the gradual learning of the ability to maintain such ad-hoc relationships. Among other things, children must learn to alternate between different kinship concepts according to the circumstances and relations at any given moment. The case of the Nayaka, therefore, highlights the complexity and diversity of kin concepts among different social systems.

Play and teaching among Mbendjele foragers

By Sheina Lew-Levy

Abstract: As more studies are conducted on social learning cross-culturally, and on social learning among hunter-gatherers specifically, researchers are coming to understand the importance of child-to-child transmission, through play and reciprocal teaching, to the learning of skills specific to food getting tasks. However, less is known about how forager children learn cultural and social norms, such as kinship terms. In this paper, I will outline some of my recent findings regarding the ways in which Mbendjele forager children from the Congo Basin transmit foraging knowledge to each other through play and teaching. Then, by summarizing results from a meta-ethnographic review conducted on how forager children learn social and gender norms, I will show that, unlike learning to forage, learning about kinship is primarily transmitted by ‘teaching play’ from adults to children. Finally, I will describe how two kinship terms, ‘mbanda’ and ‘ndoyi’ are taught to young children through word play among the Mbendjele, and how the transmission of kinship terms is similar to, and differs from, learning to hunt and gather.

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