Modern life may have made many things easier, but scientists say that raising a child is not one of them.
A study of modern hunter-gatherer groups suggests that our Stone Age ancestors gave their children better childcare than we do today.
Researchers from Cambridge University found that children among the Mbendjele BaYaka in the Republic of Congo received nine hours of care a day from up to 15 different caregivers.
Crying children were attended to by the mother’s support network more than half of the time, giving the mums more time to rest.
The study’s authors say these findings suggest modern parenting methods may be at odds with children’s evolutionarily programmed needs.
Scientists suggest that children in Stone Age hunter-gatherer groups may have had better child care than modern children
The study’s authors argue that mothers in the West have not faced such pressure and little support for the majority of humanity’s evolutionary history (stock image)
Dr Nikhil Chaudhary, lead author of the study, says that insights into these modern hunter-gatherers can tell us more about how humans lived in the Stone Age.
‘For more than 95 per cent of our evolutionary history we lived as hunter-gatherers,’ said Dr Chaudhary.
‘Therefore, contemporary hunter-gatherer societies can offer clues as to whether there are certain childrearing systems to which infants, and their mothers, may be psychologically adapted.’
The Mbendjele BaYaka live in the jungles in the North of the Republic of Congo where they rely on hunting, fishing, gathering, and honey collection for sustenance.
Evolutionary anthropologists stayed with the Mbendjele BaYaka between March and July 2014.
The Mbendjele BaYaka live in the northern jungles of the Republic of Congo and rely on hunting, fishing, gathering, and honey collection
Over these months researchers observed children for 12 daylight hours and recorded how often they were cared for and by whom.
The researchers found that between 10 and 20 different caregivers would be involved in looking after a child and that a mother’s support system would respond to more than half of their baby’s crying episodes.
Children were almost never left alone and spent long periods of time in physical contact with adults, or receiving close care.
When children cried they were attended to in under 10 seconds in half of cases and in under 25 seconds 90 per cent of the time.
Children among hunter-gatherer societies, like in the Stone Age, were rarely left alone and received constant care from a wide range of different caregivers including older children
Who are the Mbendjele BaYaka?
The Mbendjele BaYaka are a nomadic group of hunter gatherers who live between the Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo.
They are a traditional hunter gatherer society that practices hunting, fishing, foraging, and honey collection.
Some Mbendjele communities have become settled and integrated with local economies, many remain mobile and forest dwelling.
They live in multifamily camps of between 20 -80 individuals, consisting of a number of huts in which nuclear families live.
Older infants and adolescents will also often be involved in caregiving, which the report’s authors suggest gives them experience and helps reduce anxiety around parenting.
This suggests that children may be evolutionarily primed to expect high levels of attention and physical contact from several different caregivers.
However, in Western countries the provision of high-quality child support is limited and rations between children and caregivers are high.
Dr Chaudhary says: ‘The nuclear family system in the West is a world away from the communal living arrangements of hunter-gatherer societies like the Mbendjele.
‘Childcare is finally becoming a priority in the government’s budget, but there is much more to do.
‘As a society, from policy makers to employers to healthcare services, we need to work together to ensure mothers and children receive the support and care they need to thrive.’
In the study, Dr Chaudhary and his co-authors write: ‘Parenting manuals that expect babies to spend extended periods of time playing alone or devoid of physical contact may be at odds with children’s psycho-biological expectations.’
This graph shows the complex relationships of care between caregivers (grey circles), children under one and a half years old (blue circles) and children under four (green circles)
The study also notes that Stone Age societies may have better prioritised giving mothers a rest.
In Western societies, the authors write, it is common for childcare to be used only to give parents time to go to work rather than time for themselves.
This means that parents have no time to rest or recover, in total contrast to the parenting practices of hunter-gatherers and our Neolithic ancestors.
They argue that throughout the whole of human history, parents have never been under such intense pressure and faced such a lack of support.
Co-author and child psychologist Dr Annie Swanepoel says that ‘support for mothers also has numerous benefits for children such as reducing the risk of neglect and abuse, buffering against family adversity, and improving maternal wellbeing which in turn enhances maternal care.’
The study was published in the journal Developmental Psychology.
The Stone Age is a period in human prehistory distinguished by the original development of stone tools that covers more than 95 per cent of human technological prehistory.
It begins with the earliest known use of stone tools by hominins, ancient ancestors to humans, during the Old Stone Age – beginning around 3.3million years ago.
Between roughly 400,000 and 200,000 years ago, the pace of innovation in stone technology began to accelerate very slightly, a period known as the Middle Stone Age.
By the beginning of this time, handaxes were made with exquisite craftsmanship. This eventually gave way to smaller, more diverse toolkits, with an emphasis on flake tools rather than larger core tools.
The Stone Age is a period in human prehistory distinguished by the original development of stone tools that covers more than 95 per cent of human technological prehistory. This image shows neolithic jadeitite axes from the Museum of Toulouse
These toolkits were established by at least 285,000 years in some parts of Africa, and by 250,000 to 200,000 years in Europe and parts of western Asia. These toolkits last until at least 50,000 to 28,000 years ago.
During the Later Stone Age the pace of innovations rose and the level of craftsmanship increased.
Groups of Homo sapiens experimented with diverse raw materials, including bone, ivory, and antler, as well as stone.
The period, between 50,000 and 39,000 years ago, is also associated with the advent of modern human behaviour in Africa.
Different groups sought their own distinct cultural identity and adopted their own ways of making things.
Later Stone Age peoples and their technologies spread out of Africa over the next several thousand years.