Washington State University researchers find that traditional African hunter-gatherers teach children as young as 12 months old to use knives, machetes and digging sticks.

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One-year-old children in the United States typically play with plastic stacking cups and plush stuffed animals.

One-year-old children of the Aka people, a central African hunter-gatherer group, sit in their parents’ laps and learn how to use knives, machetes, and digging sticks.

Aka parents not only allow their infants to handle such tools, they teach them how to do it correctly, according to a new study co-authored by Barry Hewlett, a cultural anthropologist at Washington State University-Vancouver, who has been studying the Aka for 40 years.

While that may sound shocking to American parents who baby-proof the house with everything from toilet-seat latches to coffee table bumpers, knife-handling at such a tender age has been observed in hunter-gatherer cultures for years.

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And it shows that teaching might be more universal among humans than anthropologists have thought.

The field of social-cultural anthropology  has long held that teaching is a modern invention of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democracies (WEIRD) that has rarely, if ever been observed among traditional hunter-gatherers.

Children in such groups, whose way of life accounts for 99 percent of human history, aren’t “taught” about their culture, according to the conventional wisdom. They initiate their own learning by imitating others and helping with the daily work as soon as they are able  — a view recently described by David Lancy, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Utah State University.

In other words, kids are like little sponges who soak up everything they need to know without having to be instructed.

Hewlett agrees that children in such cultures learn very quickly and he notes that the Aka don’t even have a term that means “teaching.”

They use the word “mateya” to refer to advice or guidance.

But he considers such guidance to be teaching because it makes learning more efficient.

Hewlett’s not alone. In the last decade or so, researchers in evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and education have argued that the ability of parents and others to teach children is an ancient part of human nature that enables the transmission and accumulation of skills, knowledge and cultural values.

But much of that research has been done in WEIRD labs studying WEIRD infants.

Hewlett wanted to know if the Aka adults also taught their children — and he defines teaching as instances when caregivers change their behavior to boost children’s learning of skills or knowledge.

Around 2011, Hewlett videotaped 10 Aka children (five girls and five boys) aged 12 to 14 months for one hour in or near their camps, usually during relaxing times before or after people have returned from the forest.

That’s when they typically sit together and talk while preparing and eating meals. Older infants often sit in their caregivers’ laps and they are turned outward to face the group.  

An independent review of the videotapes showed many different examples of teaching, most of which lasted only a few seconds, according to the study, which was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Hewlett  was particularly interested in the ways that caregivers directed older infants’ attention to help them learn skills such as how to use a knife, dig for yams, prepare food, build a fire, cook on a fire and hold a baby.

WEIRD parents often get their babies’ attention to teach them something by using words, but Aka parents were more likely to use physical gestures such as positioning an infant’s arm when using a knife. He found that a little teaching like that goes a long way.

“It is relatively quick, and it is relatively subtle and it relies a lot on touch,” Hewlett said.

Hewlett and his co-author Casey Roulette, a graduate student at WSU, focused on the teaching, not the learning.  But Hewlett said that in 40 years of observing the Aka, he’s never seen an infant get injured using sharp tools.

And while he observed only 10 children ­– a nasty civil war made it too dangerous to return for a bigger  sample – the study  provides evidence that teaching may not be so WEIRD after all.