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How Do Hunter-Gatherer Children Learn Subsistence Skills? A Meta-Ethnographic Review

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Reckin, R 
Lavi, N 
Cristóbal-Azkarate, J 
Ellis-Davies, K 


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.



learning, forager, life history, meta-ethnography, cultural transmission, childhood

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Human Nature

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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.