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hunter-gatherer children playing

On the United Nations World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, which is on May 21, Professor Rachel Kendal from our Anthropology Department and Dr Sheina Lew-Levy from our Psychology Department explore the cultural diversity of indigenous hunter-gatherer communities. They discuss the communities’ right to safeguard their ancestral knowledge, the importance of that knowledge for UN global sustainable development goals, and the threat that current formal education poses.

Contemporary hunting and gathering societies

Hunting and gathering societies, or hunter-gatherers, are small scale, mostly egalitarian societies that until recently depended primarily on non-domesticated resources obtained directly from their natural environment through hunting, gathering plant food, fishing, or scavenging. Though extremely diverse, such groups share some common characteristics regarding their social structure and their relations with surrounding groups and state governments. Their small group size and egalitarian social structures are at odds with many of the norms embedded and practiced in hierarchical institutions, including schools, and they are often highly stigmatized by wider society.

Hunter-gatherers form a global group of approximately 10 million people, which means they make up about 2% of Indigenous Peoples who number approximately 476 million people, and about 0.12% of the human family (Hays et al. 2019). Despite their small numbers, hunter-gatherers speak approximately 5% of human languages – they are thus an important part of human cultural diversity. 

Educational challenges faced by hunter-gatherer societies

In an extensive review of hunter-gatherer children’s experiences at school in the Global South, Sheina Lew-Levy and colleagues found that hunter-gatherer children face economic, infrastructural, social, cultural, and structural barriers which negatively affect their school participation.  To summarise:

  • A lack of schools near hunter-gatherer communities means that learners must live in boarding schools, isolated from family and often subject to stigma and discrimination.
  • Hunter-gatherer children are often granted extensive personal autonomy, which is at odds with the authoritarian culture of formal schooling that requires obedience to strict schedules.
  • Formal education can lead to assimilation to a majority culture, resulting in the formally educated child losing their connection with traditional hunter-gatherer knowledge and values, which results in isolation from their own community.

Accordingly, one may question whether the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 4) to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” is helpful for hunter-gatherer groups.

Hence, ‘the double-edged sword’ of formal education consists of the tension that, while schools are a risk to the transmission of hunter-gatherer values, languages, and traditional knowledge, they are also viewed by hunter-gatherer communities as a source of economic and cultural empowerment. Formal education enables hunter-gatherer groups to advocate for their rights, preserve access to their lands and livelihoods, and access majority culture systems, for example diversified economic activity and obtaining formal ID, if they wish.

A way forward?

Recognising the need to pool resources to tackle the issue, the “Hunter Gatherer Education – Research and Advocacy Group” formed in 2018.  They recently received funding from the Cultural Evolution Society Transformation Fund, a grant scheme conceived and led by Rachel Kendal, to ‘transform the field of cultural evolution and its application to global human futures’.  The funding for their Applied Working Group enabled them to host an international workshop that included participants appropriate to catalysing real change: international experts in the fields of education, Indigenous studies and cultural evolution, representatives from Indigenous communities, and global activists.  Sheina Lew-Levy was invited to attend as a cultural evolution researcher specialising in hunter-gatherer children’s learning strategies, as was Rachel Kendal and her grant team as the funder (see a summary here). 

Following the workshop, the group has already written and submitted a communiqué to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII).  It specifically “invite(s) the UNPFII to identify a focal point on Education, to work with the Hunter Gatherer Education group and others interested in supporting appropriate educational approaches that affirm Indigenous peoples, their livelihoods, and their ways of knowing”. This call for appropriate education approaches echoes a powerful statement from an expert speaker at the workshop who says that the current “school system is not sophisticated enough to cope with (the sophistication of) hunter-gatherer or Indigenous knowledge”.

Alignment with UN Sustainable Development Goals

This work draws attention to contemporary hunting and gathering societies as a global group and their important contribution to human cultural diversity. It highlights that their knowledge of sustainable management of ecosystems representing global biodiversity hotspots and their Indigenous education systems are particularly endangered. Accordingly, the work not only addresses the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #4 (Education) but also #13 (Climate Action), #14 (Life below Water), and #15 (Life on Land).  Here, the application of cultural evolution research may serve to protect the rights of culturally diverse hunter-gatherer communities and in doing so protect the potential of hunter-gatherers, alongside Indigenous Peoples worldwide, to contribute to humanity’s resilience in times of severe climate and biodiversity crises.  In the process, it amplifies the voices of hunter-gatherer community members and activists to empower them and promote their inclusion in developing alternative educational concepts that are less culturally violent.

Find out more

  • Prof Rachel Kendal is in our Department of Anthropology. She is Past-President of the Cultural Evolution Society, is leading the CES Transformation Funding scheme, and is an interdisciplinary researcher with overlapping interests in cultural evolution, animal behaviour and primatology, focusing on cultural transmission (social learning and innovation) in range of species from fish to monkeys to humans, with a view to understanding the evolution of human culture and applications to societal issues.
  • Dr Sheina Lew-Levy is in our Department of Psychology. She uses methods from anthropology and psychology to conduct research in hunter-gatherer societies to understand the cultural diversity in, and evolution of, social learning in childhood. With the interdisciplinary research team she co-founded and co-directs, Forager Child Studies, she conducts cross-cultural reviews and secondary data analysis on the pasts, presents, and futures of forager children's learning using qualitative and quantitative methods.

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