The Nature of Hunter-Gatherer Childhood





The Nature of Hunter-Gatherer Childhood


Adaptation is one of the schools of thought that were popularized in the field of Psychology. During this time, the study of Psychology was combined with other disciplines such as Philosophy, Evolution or Darwin’s Natural Selection, and others. For many years, the debate on nature versus nurture has remained to be inconclusive due to the clashing researches and their findings.

One of the avenues for adaptation is infancy and childhood. During the 1970s, ethnographers began to focus on non-Western societies as they researched on other adaptation styles which are unique and representative of a whole genre of society. One such society was the !Kung San, who were then the hunter-gatherers of northern Botswana. In response to these early researches, Melvin Konner was able to present an article regarding the different models proposed on the childhood and infancy of the !Kung San. This paper presents the summary of Konner’s article as well as its implications on children growing up in industrialized societies such as in United Kingdom.

The !Kung San

The notion in question according to Konner was the validity of considering a model which represents the hunter-gatherer childhood as observed in the !Kung San. This was based on the generalizations given by a number of ethnographical studies during the 1970s. However, new studies have stated the contrary, that infancy and childhood patterns among hunter-gatherers are not unitary but adjust to various ecological conditions. This was referred to as the childhood as facultative adaptation or CFA model.

In Konner’s chapter, he was able to present the literature presented on the two grounds of adaptation models. During the 1950s until the 1980s, ethnographical studies observed that !Kung infants had an extremely close physical relationship with their mothers, who indulge them in all aspects. Research also described the infants to be carefree. Play appeared to be their only concern in life. However, play also served as the central avenue for social interactions for these infants. Physical punishment was not a popular act in their culture. The relationship between mother and infant usually comprised of intensive nursing, co-sleeping, as well as physical interactions with less pain infliction as punishment, high indulgence, and early exploration of sexuality among the adolescents.

Childhood Models

Konner attempted to reconstruct the background of childhood and infant practices for higher primates and humans. The subjects for the reconstruction involved the hypothetical evolution sketches of parental care among monkeys, apes, human hunter-gatherers, intermediate societies, and industrialized societies. He also presented different models of higher primate and hunter-gatherer childhood such as the Catarrhine Mother-Infant Complex. This model featured the old world monkeys and apes, highlighting a common maternal relationship. The model includes singleton birth, 24 hour physical contact, frequent nursing, separation from the other, and isolation rearing. Another model presented is the HGC model, which is the original hunter-gatherer childhood model. Recent scientific studies were also presented, featuring other hunter-gatherer societies.

Konner identified a number of areas where divergences were observed. These include weaning and birth spacing, maternal primacy, overall indulgence, and responsibility in childhood.


Konner concluded that there is significant evidence to prove the validity of the CFA model since it was found out the most human behavioral adaptations are facultative. However, he stated that the invalidity of the HGC model has been exaggerated because the natural selection which operates in any species must be able to contend within the limits from phylogenetic history.

The most stable generalizations involving the hunter-gatherer childhood as indicated in recent studies involve the characteristics of the hunter-gatherer children. They are described to have close physical contact with their mothers, maternal dominance in the social context, indulgent and responsive infant care, frequent nursing, weaning two and four years of age, multi-aged child groups, minimum to no responsibility during childhood, and relatively weak control of adolescent sexuality.


Konner’s article may have a number of significant implications on the mother-infant relationships that exist in the industrialized societies of the present. Konner described the this relationship is now 80% in terms of vocal interactions in Boston, compared to the 80% which comprises of physical interaction among the !Kung (Konner, 2005).

It appears that there seems to be a shift in human behaviors in terms of mother-infant relationships as society evolves into industrialization. In countries such as United Kingdom, the way of life of children is observed to be filled with responsibilities. There are also less physical interactions since mothers have somehow split their responsibility from solely reproduction and family care to career and employment. This is very different from the !Kung women, where child care is their main concern without the impressions that they are being oppressed by the society because they are innately desire children (Lee, 1979). This shift may have been caused by the change in political and economic paradigms in society. In capitalist countries such as U.K, women feel that they are oppressed, thus they seek to widen their sphere of responsibility.

The shift of the society towards being hierarchical may also have contributed to this trend. Studies have determined an evolutionary curve indicating a return to the hierarchy system which exists among ancestral ape societies. This shifted from the hunter-gatherer egalitarianism (Whiten, 1999). Such present inequality of human society has put more stress in humans, particularly on mothers and infants of industrialized societies.

Konner’s article may explain why children living in industrialized societies are jeopardized in terms of their emotional and mental development due to the shifts in paradigms in society, which put too much stress and even depression on the mother and gives high number of responsibilities for children (Crnic, Greenberg, Robinson, & Ragozin, 1984; Murray, Fiori-Cowley, Hooper, & Cooper, 1996). Based on the views and studies presented, it can be said that the !Kung San is not a primitive society at all, rather, should even be a model for child development.


Crnic, K. A., Greenberg, M. T., Robinson, N. M., & Ragozin, A. S. (1984). Maternal Stress and Social Support: Effects on the Mother-Infant Relationship from Birth to Eighteen Months. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol. 54(2), pp. 224-235.

Konner, M. (2005). Hunter-gatherer infancy and childhood. In B. S. Hewlett, & M. E. Lamb, Hunter-gatherer childhoods: Evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives (pp. 19-64). Somerest, NJ: Aldine Transaction.

Lee, R. B. (1979). The lessons of the !Kung. In The !Kung San: men, women, and work in a foraging society (pp. 432-461). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Murray, L., Fiori-Cowley, A., Hooper, R., & Cooper, P. (1996). The Impact of Postnatal Depression and Associated Adversity on Early Mother-Infant Interactions and Later Infant Outcome. Child Development, Vol. 67(5), pp. 2512-2526.

Whiten, A. (1999). The evolution of deep social mind in humans. In M. C. Corballis, & S. E. Lea, The descent mind: psychological perspectives on huminid evolution (pp. 173-193). Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.


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