hunters – gatherers

the absence of teaching

the presence of play

a culture of trust

Fascinating study analyzing childhood social learning among Aka and Bofi hunter–gatherers in Central Africa. [posted on fb by Nikhil]

“Foragers value autonomy and egalitarianism, so parents, older children or other adults are not likely to think and feel that they know what is best or better for a child and are generally unlikely to initiate, direct or intervene in a child’s social learning.

Since learning is self-motivated and directed and takes place in intimate and trusting contexts, hunter–gatherer children are generally very confident and self-assured learners.”

Social learning among Congo Basin hunter–gatherers

This paper explores childhood social learning among Aka and Bofi hunter–gatherers in Central Africa. Existing literature suggests that hunter–gatherer social learning is primarily vertical (parent-to-child) and that teaching is rare. We use behavioural observations, open-
2011 post by Peter Gray – h/g as egalitarian/peacful:

In each of these societies, the dominant cultural ethos was one that emphasized individual autonomy, non-directive childrearing methods, nonviolence, sharing, cooperation, and consensual decision-making. Their core value, which underlay all of the rest, was that of the equality of individuals.


If just one anthropologist had reported all this, we might assume that he or she was a starry-eyed romantic who was seeing things that weren’t really there, or was a liar. But many anthropologists, of all political stripes, regarding many different hunter-gatherer cultures, have told the same general story
How did hunter-gatherers maintain their egalitarian ways? Here are the three theories, which I think are complementary to one another and all correct.
Theory 1: Hunter-gatherers practiced a system of “reverse dominance” that prevented anyone from assuming power over others.
If teasing doesn’t work, the next step is shunning. The band acts as if the offending person doesn’t exist. That almost always works.
Theory 2: Hunter-gathers maintained equality by nurturing the playful side of their human nature, and play promotes equality.
The drive to play, therefore, requires suppression of the drive to dominate.
Theory 3: Hunter-gatherers maintained their ethos of equality through their childrearing practices, which engendered feelings of trust and acceptance in each new generation.
hunter-gatherers employed a style of parenting that others have referred to as “permissive” or “indulgent,” but which I prefer to call “trusting.” They trusted infants’ and children’s instincts, and so they allowed infants to decide, for example, when to nurse or not nurse and allowed children to educate themselves through their own self-directed play and exploration. They did not physically punish children and rarely criticized them.

 Elizabeth Marshall Thomas..she observed:

Ju/’hoan children very rarely cried, probably because they had little to cry about. No child was ever yelled at or slapped or physically punished, and few were even scolded. Most never heard a discouraging word until they were approaching adolescence, and even then the reprimand, if it really was a reprimand, was delivered in a soft voice. … We are sometimes told that children who are treated so kindly become spoiled, but this is because those who hold that opinion have no idea how successful such measures can be. Free from frustration or anxiety, sunny and cooperative, the children were every parent’s dream. No culture can ever have raised better, more intelligent, more likable, more confident children.

In sum, my argument here is that the lessons we have to learn from hunter-gatherers are not about our genes but about our culture. Our species clearly has the genetic potential to be peaceful and egalitarian, on the one hand, or to be warlike and despotic, on the other, or anything in between.

posted by Peter on fb sept 2015 – from 2009

Have you ever noticed how we, as a society, use agricultural metaphors to talk about parenting and education? We speak of RAISING children, just as we speak of raising tomatoes or chickens. We speak of TRAINING children, just as we speak of training horses. Our manner of talking and thinking about parenting suggests that we own our children, much as we might own domesticated plants and livestock, and that we control how they grow and behave. Hunter-gatherers did not have agricultural metaphors, and their approach to parenting was very different, and much more trusting and playful, than ours. I think we have much to learn from them.

perhaps too – much to learn about property itself.. in regard to ie: agriculture..

In past essays I have talked about hunter-gatherers’ playful approaches to (a) government, (b) religion, and (c) productive work. Now, in this essay, I describe their playful approach to parenting.[1]

ie: (partial of his bullets)

  • “Hunter-gatherers do not give orders to their children; for example, no adult announces bedtime.
  • “The idea that this is ‘my child’ or ‘your child’ does not exist [among the Yequana, of South America]. Deciding what another person should do, no matter what his age, is outside the Yequana vocabulary of behaviors. There is great interest in what everyone does, but no impulse to influence–let alone coerce–anyone.
  • “Aborigine children are indulged to an extreme degree, and sometimes continue to suckle until they are four or five years old. Physical punishment for a child is almost unheard of.”
  • “Infants and young children [among Inuit hunter-gatherers of the Hudson Bay area] are allowed to explore their environments to the limits of their physical capabilities and with minimal interference from adults.
  • “Ju/’hoansi children [of Africa] very rarely cried, probably because they had little to cry about.

on this causing spoiled children.. h/g love/protect/trust…

Anthropologists commonly use the termindulgence to characterize the hunter-gatherer style of parenting, but I think the more fundamental concept here is trust. Parents indulge children’s desires because they trust children’s instincts and judgments. They believe that children know best what they need and when they need it, so there are no or few battles of will between adults and children.

part of why we think we see spoiled people and that this doesn’t work is that we believe in partial trust. but partial or regulated or specified or judgmental trust is no trust.. so we.. haven’t yet seen what people are really like…

People who are trusted from the very beginning usually become trustworthy. People treated in this way do not grow up to see life as a matter of trying to overpower, outsmart, or in other ways manipulate others.


That is the attitude that I have been describing throughout this series as the playful approach to life–the approach that brings out the best aspects of our humanity.

Play, as I have said repeatedly in this series, requires individual freedom. Play is no longer play when one person attempts to dominate another and dictate what they do.

mar 2016

Study of ancient Japanese hunter-gatherers suggests warfare not inherent in human nature
ute people
Bruce Pascoe – aboriginals beyond h&g’s
James Suzman – affluence w/o abundance
nomad ness
gabor on democracy now

18 min – notre dame: conditions for child development that h g societies provided for children.. which are the are optimal conditions for development.. and no longer present for kids..t

study by Darcia Narvaez

hg child

h & g.. affluence w/o abundance.. james suzman

via Dante fb share

Egalitarianism Among Hunters and Gatherers’ – Elizabeth A. Cashdan

“The theories and discussions on the causes of stratification, while egalitarianism has largely been considered to be simply the baseline upon which stratification develops. Material from !Kung ethnographers, however, indicates that the egalitarianism found among most Bushman groups is a phenomenon resulting from stringent constraints, not simply a natural condition that represents the absence of stratification. These constraints arise from high spatial and temporal variability in food supply, together with a paucity of means to buffer this variability.

so.. rat park.. ?

The //Gana Bushmen of the northeastern Kalahari, on the other hand, have ways of buffering environmental variability that are not available to most other Bushman groups, and it appears that these buffers allow a relaxing of the constraints that make strict egalitarianism a necessity. Among the //Gana one sees a greater tolerance for individual accumulation, and greater (although uninstitutionalized) economic and political inequality. The following discussion considers the implications of those environ- mental buffers on the question of egalitarianism, using data collected by the author in 1976 and 1977.

Bushman Egalitarianism:

One obvious reason for the economic egalitarianism prevalent among hunter-gatherers in general and Bushman groups in particular is that the mobility associated with hunting and gathering hinders the accumulation of property; material goods cannot readily be carried from camp to camp, and without a home base, any substantial accumulation of property is prevented. If that were the sole cause of Bushman egalitarianism, however, an “equality” based on lack of material goods would arise automatically from the conditions of hunting and gathering, and no social sanctions to reinforce sharing and egalitarianism would be needed. Bushman groups, however, are in fact typified by strong and continual socialization against hoarding (i.e., toward economic equality) and against displays of arrogance and authority (i.e., toward social and political equality). This has been discussed most fully for the !Kung; Lee (1969) has eloquently described how his at- tempts to provide a large ox for a Christmas feast were met with scorn by the !Kung recipients, the scorn succeeding as a mechanism that prevents any tendency on the part of a good hunter or provider to become arrogant and think of himself as a “big man.” The proper behavior of a !Kung hunter who has made a big kill is to speak of it in passing and in a deprecating manner (Lee 1969; Draper 1978); if an individual does not minimize or speak lightly of his own accomplishments, his friends and relatives will not hesitate to do it for him. The social pressure toward economic equality and sharing is equally strong. Both food and material goods are continually shared and circulated (Marshall 1961; Draper 1978; Wiessner 1977), and if a person is not generous, the norms of sharing are “reinforced” by continual badgering and dunning for gifts (Draper 1978).

Draper (1978) and Wiessner (1977) argue that the emphasis on sharing and recirculation is a kind of “insurance” against local scarcity and environmental variability among a people who have no other means of buffering the variability. Speaking of the !Kung, Draper says that because their “mobility renders food storage virtually impossible, the !Kung have no insurance against hard times… For the !Kung… the stored surplus is the group and the more distant groups scattered in the bush, with the social and economic insurance which they provide” (1978:40). She argues that “under these circumstances, one would expect to find cultural values… in favor of regular sharing of temporary windfalls” (1978:40). Wiessner (1977) argues similarly that the !Kung have no means of coping with environmental variability other than a strategy of “pooling risk.” In Wiessner’s discussion this takes the form of a “storage of social obligations” through the delayed reciprocity of hxaro exchange, but it applies also to all the mechanisms for economic leveling among the !Kung. Because an individual shares what he has when someone is in need, without regard to the direct equality of balanced reciprocity, such a strategy protects the !Kung from an uncertain but devastating loss by substituting a certain but small loss (Wiessner 1977). Mechanisms for leveling wealth (which include the pervasive socialization against the individual accumulation of property) are therefore a kind of social insurance that protects the lKung from the extreme variability of their Kalahari environment.

//Gana Subsistence and Economic Buffers:

The relationship between egalitarianism and lack of economic buffers among the !Kung appears to be typical of most Bushman groups, but the //Gana are an interesting exception – an exception that in fact “proves the rule.” The //Gana are a population of about 800 individuals who live in the northern and eastern parts of Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Their territory overlaps with that of the G/wi, to the southwest, but the //Gana described here comprise 209 individuals who live in the northeastern parts of the region. The //Gana, like the G/wi, must cope with an environment characterized by low and extremely variable rainfall, and by an absence of permanent standing water (see Silberbauer 1965, 1972; Tanaka 1969, 1976). Unlike the C/wi, however, the //Gana supplement their basic hunting-and-gathering subsistence strategy with a small amount of food production as a measure of protection against environmental variability that is unavailable to other Bushman groups.

Together with beans and some maize, the //Gana cultivate a type of domesticated tsama melon called marotsi, which is valued for its water storage capacity. Because water does not last in the pans of this region for longer than one or two weeks after a heavy rain, cultivation of a naturally storable form of moisture (the marotsi melons) is a buffer against local variability in water and is important also in that it permits the //Gana a degree of sedentism unavailable to the G/wi. Unlike the G/wi, who must move from pan to pan in search of water even during the rainy season, the cultivated marotsi melons provide the //Gana with moisture between showers when the nearby pans become dry and help them to remain virtually sedentary throughout the rainy season. If the crop has been a good one, the marotsi provides additional moisture for a few months into the dry season as well.

The resulting sedentism is particularly impor- tant in that it makes it feasible for the //Gana to have a permanent home-base settlement at the field location. The //Gana spend about half the year at wild-melon locations, where they subsist chiefly on game and bush foods, but they use their home base as a storage site throughout the year for both bush foods (in particular dry game meat and dry berries) and cultivated crops (beans, marotsi, and maize). The practice of storing meat is particularly striking in view of its absence in other Bushman groups, where the rules of meat distribution ensure that all meat gets distributed widely and the hunter himself keeps only a small portion of his own kill. Although considerable informal sharing of food occurs among the //Gana, even with agricultural food, there appears to be considerably greater tolerance for accumulation than among other Bushman groups.

The home base also enables the //Gana to store items of wealth and the means to obtain wealth, particularly skins and furs, which are collected in quantity and traded outside the Central Reserve. Some of the items purchased in exchange for the skins (drums and other water containers) are further protection against the uncertainties of local rainfall. The wealth that the //Gana have derived from the sale of furs and skin mats has even enabled a few //Gana entrepreneurs to purchase in the last few years a small number of cattle. These animals are kept with relatives outside the Central Reserve because there is insufficient water for cattle within the reserve. Because they are kept outside the region, they have no direct effect on //Gana subsistence, but they have a potential indirect effect since, like the hard cash that purchased them, they can be converted into food by trading them to Bantu farmers outside the reserve.

Food production among the //Gana also takes the form of goat husbandry. Goats, unlike cattle, are able to obtain sufficient moisture from wild plants (chiefly moisture-bearing melons and roots), and therefore remain with the //Gana in the Central Reserve throughout the year. The potential significance of goat meat as a buffer in a hunter-gatherer diet is obvious although the actual impact of goat meat on the //Gana diet is difficult to assess. In “normal” years of abundant game the number of goats killed solely for food is extremely small, even in bands with a large number of goats, but goats are also eaten on certain ritual occasions and are eaten when they die of natural causes. During my stay with the //Gana, there was abundant game meat, and goats appeared to be a very minor part of the diet, but it would be reasonable to expect that goats, as a “stored” form of meat on the hoof, would be an important source of meat during years of little game.

Lack of Egalitarianism Among the //Gana:

Although this summary of //Gana subsistence is brief (further discussion is in Cashdan 1977), it can be seen that agriculture, storage, and husbandry are important buffers that protect the //Gana to some extent from temporal variability in the supply of water, bush foods, and game. It can therefore be expected that the //Gana are somewhat less dependent on the insurance provided by the economic leveling mechanisms typical of other Bushman groups, and therefore a greater tolerance of the accumulation of possessions by individuals and a greater disparity in wealth among both individuals and bands could also be expected.

Comparison of animal ownership is particularly revealing as a measure of equality, because, together with the possession of cash, it is probably the best way of storing wealth. The //Gana invest in few possessions other than some basic household effects such as blankets, cups, and pots. The inequality of ownership is illustrated in Figure 1 , which shows ownership of the most expensive items – donkeys, horses, drums, and cattle. Since the people who own a large number of any one of these items are also likely to own a large number of the other items, the inequality in total ownership is considerable. Wealth varies not only from individual to individual but from band to band, as Table I illustrates. The variance in ownership between bands is particularly obvious with respect to goat ownership, with a wealthy band owning
about 150 goats (including kids) and a poor band owning only about 20. These figures are based on observations of goats kept in kraals and camps, and the actual range of ownership is probably even greater than these figures suggest, because people with few or no goats care for the goats of wealthier individuals.

Evidence for economic inequality among the //Gana can be found also in their comparatively high rate of polygyny. Polygyny is permitted in other Bushman groups but is rare. Among the IKung, fewer than 5% of married men have more than one wife, although within this population the more sedentary IKung tend to be the most polygynous (H. C. Harpending: personal communication). Among the //Gana, on the other hand, approximately 25% of married men have more than one wife; almost 10% of married men had 3 wives (4/41), while 15% (6/41) had two wives. Marriage among the //Gana typically involves a bride-price of goats (in 9 marriages, the mode was 10 goats paid as bride-price), so only a wealthy man can afford to have many wives.

Unfortunately, I have no data on political inequality to compare with the data on economic inequality, but, impressionistically, the difference betweeen the //Gana and other Bushman groups is striking. Before my first meeting with the //Gana, I had visited the Dobe area and had seen for myself the self-deprecating manner of the !Kung. I was thus totally unprepared for my first encounter with the //Gana, in which several individuals each claimed to be the “headman” of Molapo (a major //Gana home-base location) and attempted to speak for others, including those in other Molapo bands. As such behavior would indicate, there are no clear-cut positions of authority among the //Gana; it became apparent, however, that there is a fairly general agreement about which individuals have the prestige and authority to speak for the group. Not surprisingly, these prestigious individuals were chiefly middle-aged or older men with three wives and were among the wealthiest of the //Gana. They owned most of the animals and drums, and were the sole owners of certain other scarce and valuable items (e.g., the firearm and the two large steel traps known to be in the region). The exceptions to this association of wealth with political prestige are younger men who have recently begun leaving the Central Reserve for several months at a time in order to do wage work in the Johannesburg mines. Among the //Gana, then, wealth and prestige are associated, and a wealthy person is respected. This contrasts strikingly with other Bushman groups, where there are constraints against the accumulation of property by individuals, and a “wealthy” person who does not recirculate his possessions is subject to disapproval and criticism rather than respect.


The inequality that exists among the //Gana has an entrepreneurial “big man” flavor; there are no formal positions of leadership, and the “headmen” have no economic redistributive role, nor any formal political power. Inequality among the //Gana can therefore be explained best not as the development of any formal organization of “ranking” or “stratification,” but, rather, as the inevitable result of the lifting of the constraints that produce strict egalitarianism among other Kalahari hunter-gatherers. These constraints arise from a lack of means to buffer environmental variability, and are a form of social insurance for hunter-gatherers living in unpredictable environments. This view, then, holds that there is nothing “natural” (statistically or socially) about the extreme leveling typical of most Bushman groups


and suggests that the type of inequality found among the //Gana can be seen as the inevitable result of economic buffers that make such leveling mechanisms unnecessary.”…/asset/aa.1980.82.1.02a0010…