Peer Teaching in Hunter-Gatherer Societies

Peer Teaching in Hunter-Gatherer Societies

By: Sheina Lew-Levy


One of our species most adaptive traits is our ability to transmit, and improve upon, knowledge from one generation to the next. This reliance on cumulative cultural knowledge has allowed humans to move into diverse, and sometimes challenging environments. For example, we are the only species that can simultaneously thrive in the Kalahari Desert and the Arctic Circle. To do so, we have developed cultural adaptations, such as specialized hunting techniques and clothing.

How children and adolescents learn these cultural technologies is of growing interest to psychologists and anthropologists alike. Teaching, defined here as a behavior performed by one individual in order to facilitate learning in another individual, is one way in which knowledge is transmitted between individuals across and within generations. While we are all familiar with classroom-style teaching, teaching can be much subtler, such as demonstrating, offering feedback, teasing, and assigning tasks.

Cross-cultural studies suggest that parents play a central role in teaching infants (1), but less is known with regards to whom older children receive teaching from. Conversely, while anthropological and psychological studies suggest that older children in diverse settings learn from peers (2), much less is known with regards to peer teaching specifically. In hunter-gatherer societies, where much of children’s time is spent in a multi-aged, mixed-sex playgroup, learning about subsistence is likely to occur through teaching during play and participation in work with other children.

Learning from other children may be particularly adaptive: in the peer group, children can acquire basic competencies. Later on, they can seek teachers from whom they can learn more complex and specialized tasks (3). Also, since teaching can be time consuming, it’s likely that teachers will be individuals who have the most to benefit from the other’s success, such as parents. However, siblings are as related to each other as they are to their parents. Thus, siblings have a lot to gain, from an inclusive fitness standpoint, in teaching their brothers and sisters.

In order to examine whether peer teaching was common in hunter-gatherer societies, we conducted research among Hadza and BaYaka foragers. The Hadza live in the arid-savannah woodlands of Tanzania, and subsist on honey, baobab, berries, tubers, and meat hunted with bows and arrows. Increasingly, the Hadza also rely on maize and other grains provided to them by missionaries, ethno-tour companies, or that are purchased from neighboring pastoralists. The BaYaka live in the dense tropical forest of the Congo Basin. They subsist on hunting with spears, guns, and traps, fishing, gathering tubers, fruit, insects, wild vegetables, honey, and on small horticultural gardens of cassava and maize.

While this suggests that child-to-child teaching is the norm in the hunter-gatherer societies surveyed, we also found considerable cross-cultural variation in the identity of child teachers.

With the help of an interpreter, I followed 35 Hadza and 38 BaYaka children and adolescents ranging in age from 3-18 years for four hours each. During this time, I recorded their activities every minute, as well as any teaching interactions. We then examined patterns for teaching using the Social Relations Model, a type of social network analysis (4). We focused particularly on the teaching of subsistence skills and knowledge. We wanted to understand whether peer teaching occurred in childhood, and adult-child teaching in adolescence, and whether teaching between siblings was common. We also wanted to understand cross-cultural variation in these behaviors.

We found that only 25% of the observed teaching occurred in adult-child dyads, even though children were in proximity of adults 57-69% of the time. While this suggests that child-to-child teaching is the norm in the hunter-gatherer societies surveyed, we also found considerable cross-cultural variation in the identity of child teachers.

First, we found evidence for the multi-stage learning model, where children learn from peers in the playgroup, and from adults in adolescence among the BaYaka. However, we did not find this trend among the Hadza. This finding may be due to the particular socialization practices of each society. Hadza parents and other community members facilitate children’s foraging by making them small, but fully functional, bows, arrows, and digging sticks (5). Children are encouraged to use these tools while foraging, which scale up as children grow. Using these tools, Hadza children are competent foragers by middle childhood, producing up to 50% of their daily caloric needs, depending on the season (6). By providing children with functional tools, adults may limit the need for direct adult teaching, since children can learn through participation. Among the BaYaka, receiving fully-functioning child-sized tools does occur, but is rarer. Further, while children make their own tools, such as slingshots and rat hunting spears, these tools are used by children only (7), and children’s foraging returns from these activities are low (8). As a result, BaYaka children may have less opportunities to practice adult subsistence with child-sized versions of adult tools, and thus, may require more adult tutelage later on in life.

Second, while teaching occurred more frequently between related dyads than unrelated dyads in both societies, sibling teaching was more common among the Hadza than the BaYaka. These differing results may be due to the structure of camps. Among the Hadza, camps tend to be spread out, while among the BaYaka, camps are much smaller. As a result, BaYaka children are in close proximity to, and in closer range for receiving teaching from, all adults living in camp throughout the day. In their larger camps, Hadza children are more likely to be with their nuclear family while at home, resulting in more opportunities to be taught by these closely related individuals, including siblings. As a result of these different settlement structures, the nuclear family may play a greater role in knowledge transmission among the Hadza than the BaYaka.

Taken together, the results of our study suggest that children and adolescents are active teachers from an early age. By facilitating each other’s knowledge acquisition, children may also contribute to a more rapid, and potentially less costly, transfer of knowledge. Furthermore, our study shows that aspects of socialization and settlement structure may mediate which children teach, and when, calling attention to the need to take account of contextual aspects when investigating how children learn across diverse societies.


Read the research article here.


  1. Hewlett BS, Roulette CJ. Teaching in Hunter–Gatherer Infancy. R Soc Open Sci. 2016;3(15):1–14.
  2. Lancy DF. The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2015.
  3. Reyes‐García V, Gallois S, Demps K. A multistage learning model for cultural transmission: Evidence from three Indigenous societies. In: Terashima H, Hewlett BS, editors. Social Learning and Innovation in Contemporary Hunter-Gatherers. Tokyo: Springer Japan; 2016. p. 47–60.
  4. Koster JM, Leckie G. Food sharing networks in lowland Nicaragua: An application of the social relations model to count data. Soc Networks [Internet]. 2014;38(1):100–10. Available from:
  5. Crittenden AN. Children’s foraging and play among the Hadza: The evolutionary significance of “work play.” In: Meehan CL, Crittenden AN, editors. Childhood: Origins, evolution and implications. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press; 2016. p. 155–70.
  6. Crittenden AN, Conklin-Brittain NL, Zes DA, Schoeninger MJ, Marlowe FW. Juvenile Foraging among the Hadza: Implications for Human Life History. Evol Hum Behav. 2013;34(4):299–304.
  7. Gallois S, Duda R, Reyes-Garcia V. Local ecological knowledge among Baka children: A case of “children’s culture”? J Ethnobiol. 2017;37(1):60–80.
  8. Hagino I, Yamauchi T. High Motivation and Low Gain: Food Procurement from Rainforest Foraging by Baka Hunter-Gatherer Children. In: Terashima H, Hewlett BS, editors. Social Learning and Innovation in Contemporary Hunter-Gatherers: Evolutionary and Ethnographic Perspectives. Tokyo: Springer Japan; 2016. p. 135–46.

Children’s Understanding of Dominance and Prestige in China and the UK

Children’s Understanding of Dominance and Prestige in China and the UK

By: Anni Kajanus*, Narges Afshordi*, & Felix Warneken

*joint first authors


Children recognize social rank differences between individuals from early on, for instance associating bigger physical size with dominance. However, dominance—gaining high rank through force or threat of force—is only one mechanism of social rank in human societies. Prestige – merit and respect in the eyes of others – is another important strategy to gain rank. While dominant individuals bully their way to the top, others follow prestigious individuals willingly. In this paper, we set out to test whether children might be able to distinguish dominance and prestige from each other based on a number of cues. We were also interested in how children’s understanding of dominance and prestige develops in different cultural contexts. More specifically, we compared children’s expectations about who would win a desired resource in a conflict between a low-ranking individual and a high-ranking one. This second question was inspired by Kajanus’ ethnographic studies in Nanjing, China, and London, UK. In Chinese culture, yielding to elders and those in positions of authority is valued. As a result, yielding to others can be a signal of lower social rank, as it is in many Western cultural contexts. In addition to this, however, people sometimes also yield to those in lower positions, for example to demonstrate their ability to control emotional impulses, or to skillfully stop conflict situations from escalating. In these situations, yielding is a sign of higher, rather than lower, social rank. Chinese children learn this value from early on, although the complexities of applying it successfully in social situations may take many years to master (Kajanus, forthcoming). In sum, yielding can be a sign of either lower or higher status in China, but generally only of lower status in the UK.

When given the choice between the dominant and prestigious individuals, older children inferred that the subordinate would approach the prestigious character and like them, but fear the dominant character.

With this in mind, we tested children in the UK and China (5-7 years, and 9-12 years, n=40 for each age in each country). Experiment 1 examined the age at which children distinguish dominance and prestige. Children watched simple animations involving three characters that established the central character as subordinate to both a dominant and a prestigious character. In the animations, we used different cues to demonstrate some typical features of dominant and prestigious individuals. For instance, the dominant character imposed her will on the subordinate without ever being asked to intervene, while the prestigious character shared an opinion in a friendly way only after being consulted. We found that both age groups of children in both countries easily recognized the social rank differences between the high-ranking (i.e. dominant or prestigious) characters and the low-ranking one. Further, when given the choice between the dominant and prestigious individuals, older children inferred that the subordinate would approach the prestigious character and like them, but fear the dominant character. Younger children also made similar inferences, but were less successful than their older counterparts. In addition to finding that children differentiate dominance and prestige, this experiment provided empirical confirmation that our animations depicted dominance and prestige in ways that were interpretable to children in both places. This gave us the opportunity to use the same animations in order to ask if children in China and the UK have similar or different expectations about who would win a conflict. Before testing children, however, we first wanted to know whether there were differences in adults’ expectations. We tested 40 adults from each country online. We established the roles of subordinate, dominant, and prestigious using the same cartoons as before. We then presented two cases of conflict over resources (subordinate vs. dominant, and subordinate vs. prestigious), and asked who would win. Even though adults in both countries predicted that the dominant and prestigious individuals would overcome the subordinate, Chinese adults were less likely than British adults to do so in the prestige case. That is, Chinese adults were less likely than British ones to think that the prestigious person would win the resource. Thus, we found some evidence of differences between the two populations in their views on conflicts between people of differing social rank.

Finally, we explored how cultural models of hierarchy and conflict influence children’s inferences about the outcome of conflicts between high- and low-ranking parties. Testing new samples of children (n=40 in each age in each country) in this task, we found that younger children in both countries failed to make systematic inferences about who would win. While six-year-old children were able to infer dominance and prestige from their associated cues, they apparently did not insert social rank into their reasoning about other inferences such as who would win a conflict. Older children in the two countries, however, responded differently from each other. Those in the UK, like adults, thought that high-status characters would win. In contrast, older children in China made no consistent prediction in favor of the high-status parties. Chinese children’s responses and importantly their justifications indicate that they are still grappling with the complex norms about who should yield and when. Overall, these experiments provide strong evidence for a culturally-influenced aspect of hierarchical relationship understanding across two populations, as well as pointing to potentially universal aspects of rank-reasoning.


Read the research article here.

EHB, Elsevier Survey Results

Dear HBES Members:

The results from the survey you all filled out about Evolution and Human Behavior and Elsevier were very clear, and very helpful. We received around 280 responses to each survey question.

The main question of the survey was: Given that the transition would eliminate $130K/year inflow into the Society’s reserves, how important is it to you that the official journal of HBES be an open-access journal…. (first chart) eventually, within ~5 years …. (middle chart) soon, within ~2 years ….(last chart) ASAP. The scale was: -5 = strongly against to +5 = strongly in favor.




Most people did not want to cut ties with Elsevier ASAP to go open-access (panel c); many people were in favor of having our own open-access journal in about five years (panel a), and the field was split on the question of exiting to go open-access in about two years (panel b).

Given these results, we negotiated a 3 year contract with Elsevier, on good terms, which can be reconsidered in 2022. Many thanks for the guidance, helpful comments, and feedback! We will continue to involve you in these decisions moving forward.



HBES Executive Council and Publication Committee




Boston skyline

HBES 2019 Boston: Post-Conference Survey Results

Dear HBES Members:

Thank you to everyone who filled out the post-conference survey for HBES 2019 in Boston.  The results – including the many insightful comments and suggestions – were very helpful, and the council will be using them to improve our annual conference moving forward. Below, we have included some highlights from the survey spanning the range of topics you provided feedback on.

Some context about the survey: The HBES post-conference survey was first sent out to the membership list on June 26, 2019, with a reminder email sent out on July 8, 2019. The survey was closed on July 24, 2019. The survey received 198 engagements. The Boston conference had registered 489 attendees and our 2019 society membership prior to the Boston conference had 591 members. Thus, the survey gathered about one third of the HBES membership.

Questions about the survey can be directed to Nicole Barbaro (Communications Officer) and Leda Cosmides (President).


The Executive Council of HBES


What does the HBES 2019 membership look like?

Our polled membership is approximately 39% female, 59% male, 2% another gender identity. Additionally, 70% report working/residing in the United States, and 30% report working/residing outside the United States.


In what departments do our members work?


For what reasons are you a member of HBES?


How satisfied are members with our Code of Conduct?


Sexual Harassment at HBES 2019

85% of respondents thought sexual harassment was not a problem, or less of a problem at HBES than at other conferences; 96% thought it was less than or equal to that at other conferences. Five individuals reported that they had experienced sexual harassment at HBES 2019 via the post-conference survey. The Grievance Committee also received reports of sexual harassment via the online report submission form on the HBES website; these involved the behavior of one individual. The Grievance Committee and the Executive Council promptly responded to these reports according to the procedures outlined in the Code of Conduct. The complainants have been notified of the proceedings.



Overall, most members find the quality of the HBES conference above average or excellent relative to other conferences they attend


Overall, most members find that HBES provides good opportunities for networking relative to other conferences they attend.


To what extent do members agree that HBES events provide environments where people are free to express their ideas, opinions, or beliefs.



To what extent do members agree that at HBES events, people have an opportunity to excel regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, etc.

Interview with 2019 HBES Lifetime Career Award Winner Bobbi Low by Jaimie A. Krems

Bobbi Low is Professor Emerita in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, where she’s also affiliated with the Institute for Social Research and the Center for Study of Complex Systems. She is also a co-founding member of HBES and winner of the 2019 Lifetime Career Award for Distinguished Scientific Contribution, which she received at our annual HBES conference in Boston. Bobbi Low is also a pioneer, a path-breaker, and a research powerhouse—but you knew that. So we decided to ask Bobbi a bunch of questions to find out some information we didn’t know before, and also to take advantage of her perspective on evolutionary social science over her eminent career.

In Fall 2019, Jaimie Arona Krems, an assistant professor at the Oklahoma Center for Evolutionary Analysis (OCEAN) at Oklahoma State University and fellow member of the HBES Grievance Committee, chatted with Bobbi Low. Below is some of their conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.


Jaimie: What’s your origin story? (By origin story, I mean, if you were a comic book hero, how did you come into being?)

Bobbi: I was a nerdy/dorky kid (of course envying the popular crowd!), but the one thing I knew how to do was go to school. I absolutely loved reading—still do. I would read anything. I was 12 or 14 when I read both Coming of Age in Samoa and Polly Adler’s (a famous New York madame) memoir A House is Not a Home. (Yeah, I was too young to understand…I thought having parties all the time would be great.)


J: How did you survive the leaky pipeline (i.e., the pipeline in STEM education that famously drips women and retains men)?

B: I have one trait that’s not helpful in most cases: I am pretty oblivious…but entering academe, it actually helped. After the first year, I realized that nothing ever was decided in faculty meetings—so I avoided them as much as I could, even scheduling seminar class in the faculty meeting time slot. As you’d guess, it really slowed down my progress ‘up the ladder’ but I really didn’t notice much. I should tell you that I have always been a misfit in my school: they hired me because at that time there was pressure to hire women, and I had wildlife experience (I was hired to teach ‘wildlife biology’ though I soon turned it into behavioral ecology of terrestrial vertebrates).


J: What advice might you have for people just starting to pursue their interests in evolutionary social science?

B: Find a knowledgeable and supportive mentor


J: Currently lots of posts/tweets about leaving academia for better-paying jobs. Can you mention some good reasons to stay in the academy?

B: Ouch! That’s a good one. If you are truly passionate about doing good research, and if you love teaching, you belong in the academy. I probably couldn’t have survived anywhere else—even now I am still going to school. But demographics rule: we are an aging population, with fewer students coming into university ages, so even now, many departments are shrinking and streamlining. It’s a buyer’s market out there. And I know a number of anthropologists who work for corporations, medical schools, and more. Anywhere multiculturalism is not a long-standing condition, there will be a need for social scientists.


J: In academia, rejection is the mode. How do you deal with the rejection letter?

B: I put it in the drawer, maybe shed a few tears in private, and check it in about a week. It’s important to check it as soon at that. When I was starting, I was so depressed by a letter from American Naturalist that I couldn’t look at it. When it surfaced two years later, I saw that it was a simple ‘revise and resubmit’ letter, though of course by then it was far too late!


J: If I’m correct, you were the first full-time female faculty member…how has HBES and evolutionary social science changed since your start? Is anything clearly better or worse?

B: I think it’s clear that the fields and the society have developed amazingly over the years. Impact has grown, too: a glance at my google feed always turns up some ‘hybrid’ popularizing article in evolutionary anthropology (cookies, I know…but the stories are out there!)


J: Does HBES differ from other societies to which you belong, and if so, how?

B: I am not sure it does…. just because we understand human frailties in a particular way, doesn’t mean we can circumvent them. Next meeting, think about non-human behavioral ecology—think about the people you see as critters—and you’ll find bucks sparring, and more.


J: Would you tell us one boring fact about yourself and/or one thing that most people at HBES would be unlikely to know about you?

B: Actually most facts about me are boring. Most people don’t know things like: I bet I have caught more snakes than anyone else you know. I was pretty much a cowboy-field biologist in grad school: lots of time in the field—especially deserts, carried a knife on lower leg, pickled specimens by moonlight, teased vultures by staggering and falling down until they came in to investigate, walked out on bridge girders over the Pecos River…stuff like that. It was enormous fun.


J: Out of curiosity, what animal would you be?

B: A lizard, I think. I am utterly heliotropic (how I ever came to live in Michigan I’ll never understand fully).