Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Human Nature of Teaching II: How Hunter-Gatherers Taught

How hunter-gatherers taught without coercion.

In my last post, I defined teaching, very broadly, as behavior that is conducted by one individual (the teacher) for the purpose of helping another individual (the pupil) to learn something. I presented examples showing that, by this definition, teaching can be found even among non-human animals. Now I wish to examine teaching as it occurs, or occurred, in hunter-gatherer bands.

As I noted in an earlier post, all humans were hunter-gatherers until a mere 10,000 years ago, when agriculture first appeared in some parts of the planet. In other words, for about 99% of our million or so years on earth (more or less, depending on just how you want to define "human beings") we were all hunter-gatherers. Our basic human instincts, including our instincts to learn and to teach, were shaped to meet the needs of our hunter-gatherer way of life. We know a good deal about that way of life through studies of those groups of people, in various isolated parts of the world, who managed to survive as hunter-gatherers into the last half of the 20th century and were studied by anthropologists. Wherever they were found, these people lived in small bands, of roughly 20 to 50 people per band, who moved from campsite to campsite to follow the available game and edible vegetation. They had rich cultures, and children had to learn a lot to become effective adults.[1]

As I explained in that earlier post, hunter-gatherers had faith that their children would, on their own initiatives, learn what they needed to know, and so they did not worry about their children's education or attempt to control it. Moreover, hunter-gatherers held strongly to the values of personal autonomy and equality. They believed that it is wrong for anyone to try to control another person's life, either in the short run or the long run, even if that other person is a child. Hunter-gatherers believed that it is presumptuous for anyone to think that they know what is best for another person. So, they did not "teach" in the sense of trying to get their children to do things that the children were not already motivated to do. But they did teach by my broad definition of teaching. They deliberately behaved in ways that were designed to help their children learn what the children wanted to learn. Here are the major categories of ways by which adult hunter-gatherers' helped their children learn.[2]

Providing children with ample time to play and explore and thereby to learn

Hunter-gatherer children were the freest human children ever to have walked the earth. Hunter-gathers believed that children learn through their own, self-directed, self-initiated play and exploration, so they allowed their children unlimited time for such activities. In a survey of hunter-gatherer researchers that I helped to conduct some years ago, all said that the children in the group that they had studied were free to explore on their own, without adult guidance, essentially from dawn to dusk every day.[3] They were allowed such freedom beginning at about age 4 (the age at which, according to hunter-gathers, children "have sense" and do not need to be watched regularly by adults) on into their mid to late teenage years, when they began to take on adult responsibilities. By providing children with food and other subsistence needs, and by not burdening them with many chores, hunter-gatherer adults allowed their children ample time to educate themselves.

Providing children with the culture's tools so they could practice using them

In order to learn to use the tools of the culture, children must have access to those tools and be allowed to play with them. Hunter-gatherers recognized that, and they allowed their children nearly unlimited opportunities to play with the tools of the culture, even dangerous ones such as knives and axes. (There were some limits, however; the poison-tipped darts or arrows that adults used for hunting were kept well out of small children's reach.) The adults also made scaled-down versions of tools--such as small bows and arrows, digging sticks, and baskets--specifically for young children, even toddlers, to play with. Providing children with playthings is one means of teaching that is common to our culture and hunter-gatherer cultures. However, hunter-gatherers were more likely than we are to allow their children to play with the real versions of the culture's tools, not pretend ones. Even the scaled-down tools were real; the small bows, arrows, axes, and digging sticks functioned just like the bigger versions.

Allowing children to observe and participate in adult activities, and tolerating children's interruptions

Hunter-gatherer adults recognized that children learn by watching, listening, and participating, and so they did not exclude children from adult activities. By all accounts, they were enormously tolerant of children's interruptions, and they allowed children into their workspaces even when that meant that the work would go slower. On their own initiatives, children often joined their mothers on gathering trips, where they learned by watching and sometimes helping. By the time they were young teenagers, boys who were eager to do so were allowed to join men on big-game hunting expeditions, so they could watch and learn. By the time they were in their middle teens, they were actively contributing to, rather than detracting from, the success of such trips. Within a few years after that, they were full-fledged hunters.

In camp, children often crowded around adults, and young ones climbed onto adults' laps, to watch or "help" them cook, make hunting weapons and other tools, play musical instruments, or make beaded decorations; and the adults rarely shooed them away. As an illustration of the adults' tolerance of children's interruptions of their activities, here is a typical scene described by anthropologist Patricia Draper:

"One afternoon I watched for 2 hours while a [Ju'/hoan] father hammered and shaped the metal for several arrow points. During the period his son and grandson (both under 4 years old) jostled him, sat on his legs, and attempted to pull the arrowheads from under the hammer. When the boys' fingers came close to the point of impact, he merely waited until the small hands were a little farther away before he resumed hammering. Although the man remonstrated with the boys, he did not become cross or chase the boys off; and they did not heed his warnings to quit interfering. Eventually, perhaps 50 minutes later, the boys moved off a few steps to join some teenagers lying in the shade."[4]

Showing how, and presenting information, to children who wished to know

When children asked adults to show them how to do something or to help them do it, the adults obliged. As one group of hunter-gatherer researchers put it, "Sharing and giving are core forager values, so what an individual knows is open and available to everyone; if a child wants to learn something, others are obliged to share the knowledge or skill."[5] In the course of natural daily life, an adult might show a child the best way to swing an ax, or might point out the difference between the footprints of two different, closely related mammals--but only if the child wanted such help. In an interview study, hunter-gather women (of the Aka culture) described how, when they were young, their mothers had placed varieties of mushrooms or wild yams in front of them and explained the differences between those that were edible and those that were not.[6]

Another source for learning were the stories told—by men about their hunting trips, by women about their gathering trips, by both men and women about their visits to other bands, and, especially, by the older members of the band about significant events in the past. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, who was one of the first to study the Ju/'hoan hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari Desert, noted that women in their sixties and seventies were especially great storytellers. The stories were not directed specifically to children, but the children listened and absorbed the meaning.[7] My guess is that the fact that the stories were directed to everyone, not specifically to children, made them all the more interesting and memorable to the children.

Exercising children's natural desires to share and give

Research in our culture has shown that infants, as young as 12 months old, delight in giving things to other people. In a series of little-known experiments conducted in the United States, nearly every one of more than 100 infants, aged 12 to 18 months, spontaneously gave toys to an adult during brief sessions in a laboratory room.[8] In our culture, such joyful and voluntary giving by infants is not much commented upon, but in at least some hunter-gatherer cultures it was celebrated, much like infants' earliest words are celebrated in our culture. In various ways, hunter-gatherer adults cultivated the giving instincts of infants and young children. For example, toddlers were invited to participate in the band's food sharing, by carrying food from one hut to another, which they did with great delight.

Among the Ju/'hoansi, grandmothers took special responsibility to initiate infants into the culture of sharing by playing games of give and take with them and by encouraging games in which infants would pass beads and other valued objects to others in the band.[9] This is the one example of systematic, deliberate adult influence on children's play that I have found in the hunter-gatherer research literature. No human trait was more crucial to the hunter-gatherer way of life than the willingness to give or share. Their survival depended on it (and so, really, does ours, if you stop to think about it).

Providing a trustful social environment within which to learn

The most important and general way by which hunter-gatherer adults helped their children learn was by providing an always supportive, always trustful environment. To educate themselves, children need to feel emotionally secure and confident. By trusting children to know what is best for themselves and by making that trust apparent, adult hunter-gatherers provided the conditions that all children need, if they are to feel confident about taking control of their own lives and learning. Because all adult members of the band cared about and provided for the emotional and physical needs of all of the children, and because it was a cultural taboo ever to deliberately hurt a child, the children grew up feeling that others were trustworthy, which is a prerequisite for becoming trustworthy oneself. In such an environment, children's instincts for self-education flourish. That is as true today as it ever was.

The secure child, raised in a setting where others are loving, trusting, and nonjudgmental, and where the tools and examples needed for education are available but not forced upon anyone, vigorously and joyfully undertakes the natural childhood task of self-education. Unfortunately, in our schools, we replace security with anxiety as the foundation for learning, and we keep children so busy doing what they are told to do that self-education becomes essentially impossible. In schools, we "teach" in ways that subvert children's natural instincts to learn and that replace trust and security with distrust and anxiety.


And now, what do you think about this? … This blog is, in part, a forum for discussion. Your questions, thoughts, stories, and opinions are treated respectfully by me and other readers, regardless of the degree to which we agree or disagree. Psychology Today no longer accepts comments on this site, but you can comment by going to my Facebook profile, where you will see a link to this post. If you don't see this post near the top of my timeline, just put the title of the post into the search option (click on the three-dot icon at the top of the timeline and then on the search icon that appears in the menu) and it will come up. By following me on Facebook you can comment on all of my posts and see others' comments. The discussion is often very interesting.


[1] For a general discussions of hunter-gatherer education, see the above-lisrted posts and see Peter Gray, The evolutionary biology of education: How our hunter-gatherer educative instincts could form the basis for education today, in Evolution, Education, and Outreach, 4, 428-440. 2011.

[2] For an excellent discussion of teaching and learning in one hunter-gather culture (the Aka), see Barry S. Hewlett, Hillary N. Fouts, Adam Boyette, & Bonnie L. Hewlett (2011). Social learning among Congo Basin hunter-gatherers. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 366, 1168-1178. I have made considerable use of this article in this essay.

[3] Peter Gray. Play as the foundation for hunter-gatherer social existence. American Journal of Play, 1, 476-522. 2009.

[4] Patricia Draper (1976), Social and economic constraints on child life among the !Kung. In R. B. Lee & I. DeVore (Eds.), Kalahari hunter-gatherers: studies of the !Kung San and their neighbors, pp. 199-217. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press., p 205-206.

[5] Hewlett et al. (2011)-see Note 2.

[6] Hewlett et al. (2011)-see Note 2..

[7] Thomas, Elizabeth M. (2006). The old way. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

[8] Hay, D. F., & Murray, P. (1982). Giving and requesting: Social facilitation of infants' offers to adults. Infant Behavior and Development, 5, 301-310. Also, Rheingold, H. L., Hay, D. F., & West, M. J. (1976). Sharing in the second year of life. Child Development, 47, 1148-1158.

[9] Bakeman, R., Adamson, L. B., Konner, M., & Barr, R. (1990). !Kung infancy: The social context of object exploration. Child Development, 61, 794-809. Also, Wiessner, P. (1982). Risk, reciprocity and social influences on !Kung San economics. In E. Leacock & R. Lee (Eds.), Politics and history in band societies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.