Foraging complexity and the evolution of childhood

Ilaria Pretelli, Erik Ringen, and Sheina Lew-Levy


Our species’ long childhood is hypothesized to have evolved as a period for learning complex foraging skills. Researchers studying the development of foraging proficiency have focused on assessing this hypothesis, yet studies present inconsistent conclusions regarding the connection between foraging skill development and niche complexity. Here, we leverage published records of child and adolescent foragers from 28 societies to (i) quantify how skill-intensive different resources are and (ii) assess whether children’s proficiency increases more slowly for more skill-intensive resources. We find that foraging returns increase slowly for more skill-intensive, difficult-to-extract resources (tubers and game), consistent with peak productivity attained in adulthood. Foraging returns for easier-to-extract resources (fruit and fish/shellfish) increase rapidly during childhood, with adult levels of productivity reached by adolescence. Our findings support the view that long childhoods evolved as an extended period for learning to extract complex resources characteristic of the human foraging niche.

Published in

Science Advances, vol. 8, n. 41, October 2022