Foraging and the importance of knowledge in Pemba, Tanzania: implications for childhood evolution

Ilaria Pretelli, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, Bakar Makame Khamis, and Richard McElreath


Childhood is a period of life unique to humans. Childhood may have evolved through the need to acquire knowledge and subsistence skills. In an effort to understand the functional significance of childhood, previous research examined increases with age in returns to foraging across food resources. Such increases could be due to changes in knowledge, or other factors such as body size or strength. Here, we attempt to unpack these age-related changes. First, we estimate age-specific foraging returns for two resources. We then develop nonlinear structural equation models to evaluate the relative importance of ecological knowledge, grip strength and height in a population of part-time children foragers on Pemba island, Tanzania. We use anthropometric measures (height, strength, n = 250), estimates of ecological knowledge (n = 93) and behavioural observations for 63 individuals across 370 foraging trips. We find slower increases in foraging returns with age for trap hunting than for shellfish collection. We do not detect any effect of individual knowledge on foraging returns, potentially linked to information sharing within foraging parties. Producing accurate estimates of the distinct contribution of specific traits to an individual’s foraging performance constitutes a key step in evaluating different hypotheses for the emergence of childhood.


Childhood evolution; Foraging; Life history,ecological knowledge; Pemba island; Bayesianmodels;

Published in

Royal Society, vol. 290, n. 2011, October 2023