Human Nature

, Volume 28, Issue 3, pp 289–322 | Cite as

Autonomy, Equality, and Teaching among Aka Foragers and Ngandu Farmers of the Congo Basin

  • Adam H. Boyette
  • Barry S. Hewlett


The significance of teaching to the evolution of human culture is under debate. We contribute to the discussion by using a quantitative, cross-cultural comparative approach to investigate the role of teaching in the lives of children in two small-scale societies: Aka foragers and Ngandu farmers of the Central African Republic. Focal follows with behavior coding were used to record social learning experiences of children aged 4 to 16 during daily life. “Teaching” was coded based on a functional definition from evolutionary biology. Frequencies, contexts, and subtypes of teaching as well as the identity of teachers were analyzed. Teaching was rare compared to observational learning, although both forms of social learning were negatively correlated with age. Children received teaching from a variety of individuals, and they also engaged in teaching. Several teaching types were observed, including instruction, negative feedback, and commands. Statistical differences in the distribution of teaching types and the identity of teachers corresponded with contrasting forager vs. farmer foundational cultural schema. For example, Aka children received less instruction, which empirically limits autonomous learning, and were as likely to receive instruction and negative feedback from other children as they were from adults. Commands, however, exhibited a different pattern suggesting a more complex role for this teaching type. Although consistent with claims that teaching is relatively rare in small-scale societies, this evidence supports the conclusion that teaching is a universal, early emerging cognitive ability in humans. However, culture (e.g., values for autonomy and egalitarianism) structures the nature of teaching.


Teaching Foragers Childhood Cultural evolution Autonomy Egalitarianism 



Funding for this research was provided by the National Science Foundation under grant DGE-0549425 and the Wenner-Gren Foundation under Dissertation Fieldwork Grant GR 8021. Boyette gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Mboulou Aubin and Mboula Edward during fieldwork, and the Aka and Ngandu families who taught us so much.


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Duke UniversityDurhamUSA
  2. 2.Washington State UniversityVancouverUSA

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