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.


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