Childcare and cavemen: Why research says its time to go back
The Sector > Research > We need to get back to hunter-gatherer roots for children to thrive, study says

We need to get back to hunter-gatherer roots for children to thrive, study says

by Freya Lucas

April 18, 2023
A man is shown, back to camera, walking into a cave

For 95 per cent of human history people have lived as hunter-gatherers, in countries and societies all over the world. University of Cambridge researchers are now calling for economically developed countries to look to these hunter-gatherer roots to improve education and wellbeing.


Hunter-gatherers, researchers argue, can help the modern world to understand the conditions that children may be psychologically adapted to. 


While some of the ‘hunter-gatherer ways’, such as skin to skin contact for parents and infants as a bonding tool, are well recognised, researchers believe other behaviours common in hunter-gatherer societies may also benefit families in economically developed countries. 


One hypothesis put forward by researchers is that having higher ratios in early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings may support learning and wellbeing, by bringing them into closer alignment with highly attentive hunter-gatherer ratios. 


Published recently in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, the study by Dr Nikhil Chaudhary, an evolutionary anthropologist at Cambridge, and Dr Annie Swanepoel, a child psychiatrist, calls for new research into child mental health in hunter-gatherer societies. 


They explore the possibility that some common aspects of hunter-gatherer childhoods could help families in economically developed countries. Eventually, hunter-gatherer behaviours could inform ‘experimental intervention trials’ in homes, schools and ECEC settings.


The authors acknowledge that children living in hunter-gatherer societies live in very different environments and circumstances than those in developed countries. They also stress that hunter-gatherer children invariably face many difficulties that are not experienced in developed countries and, therefore, caution that these childhoods should not be idealised.


In his work Dr Chaudhary draws on his own experiences of observing the BaYaka people in Congo and the extensive research of anthropologists studying other hunter-gatherer societies, highlighting major differences in the ways in which hunter-gatherer children are cared for compared to their peers in developed countries. 


He stresses that “contemporary hunter-gatherers must not be thought of as ‘living fossils’, and while their ways of life may offer some clues about our prehistory, they are still very much modern populations each with a unique cultural and demographic history”. 


Care-giving ratios


The study points out that communal living in hunter-gatherer societies results in a very high ratio of available caregivers to infants/toddlers, which can even exceed 10:1.


This contrasts starkly with the nuclear family unit, and even more so with nursery settings, in developed countries. According to the UK’s Department of Education regulations, nurseries require ratios of 1 carer to 3 children aged under 2 years, or 1 carer to 4 children aged 2-3.


“Almost all day, hunter-gatherer infants and toddlers have a capable caregiver within a couple of metres of them. From the infant’s perspective, that proximity and responsiveness, is very different from what is experienced in many nursery settings in the UK,” Dr Chaudhary added.


“If that ratio is stretched even thinner, we need to consider the possibility that this could have impacts on children’s wellbeing.”


Physical contact and attentiveness


Despite increasing uptake of baby carriers and baby massage in developed countries, levels of physical contact with infants remain far higher in hunter-gatherer societies. In Botswana, for instance, 10-20 week old infants are in physical contact with someone for around 90 per cent of daylight hours, and almost 100 per cent of crying bouts are responded to, almost always with comforting or nursing – scolding is extremely rare.


The study points out that this exceptionally attentive childcare is made possible because of the major role played by non-parental caregivers, or ‘alloparents’, which is far rarer in developed countries.


Non-parental caregivers


In many hunter-gatherer societies, alloparents provide almost half of a child’s care. A previous study found that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Efe infants have 14 alloparents a day by the time they are 18 weeks old, and are passed between caregivers eight times an hour.


“Parents now have much less childcare support from their familial and social networks than would likely have been the case during most of our evolutionary history,” Dr Chaudhary said. 


“Such differences seem likely to create the kind of evolutionary mismatches that could be harmful to both caregivers and children.”


“The availability of other caregivers can reduce the negative impacts of stress within the nuclear family, and the risk of maternal depression, which has knock-on effects for child wellbeing and cognitive development.”


The study emphasises that alloparenting is a core human adaptation, contradicting ‘intensive mothering’ narratives which emphasise that mothers should use their maternal instincts to manage childcare alone. Dr Chaudhary and Dr Swanepoel write that ‘such narratives can lead to maternal exhaustion and have dangerous consequences’.


Children providing care and mixed-age active learning


In hunter-gatherer societies, children play a significantly bigger role in providing care to infants and toddlers than is the case in developed countries. In some communities they begin providing some childcare from the age of four and are capable of sensitive caregiving; and it is common to see older, but still pre-adolescent children looking after infants.


By contrast, the NSPCC in the UK recommends that when leaving pre-adolescent children at home, babysitters should be in their late teens at least.


“In developed countries, children are busy with schooling and may have less opportunity to develop caregiving competence. However, we should at least explore the possibility that older siblings could play a greater role in supporting their parents, which might also enhance their own social development,” Dr Chaudhary said.


The study also points out that instructive teaching is rare in hunter-gatherer societies and that infants primarily learn via observation and imitation. From around the age of two, hunter-gatherer children spend large portions of the day in mixed-age (2-16) ‘playgroups’ without adult supervision. There, they learn from one another, acquiring skills and knowledge collaboratively via highly active play practice and exploration.


Learning and play are two sides of the same coin, which contrasts with the lesson-time / play-time dichotomy of schooling in the UK and other developed countries.


Further research


The study calls for more research into children’s mental health in hunter-gatherer societies to test whether the hypothesised evolutionary mismatches actually exist. If they do, such insights could then be used to direct experimental intervention trials in developed countries.


Working with a team from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Dr Chaudhary and Dr Swanepoel hope that greater collaboration between evolutionary anthropologists and child psychiatrists/psychologists can help to advance our understanding of the conditions that children need to thrive.


Access the study here

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