A key issue distinguishing prominent evolutionary models of human life history is whether prolonged childhood evolved to facilitate learning in a skill- and strength-intensive foraging niche requiring high levels of cooperation. Considering the diversity of environments humans inhabit, children’s activities should also reflect local social and ecological opportunities and constraints. To better understand our species’ developmental plasticity, the present paper compiled a time allocation dataset for children and adolescents from twelve hunter-gatherer and mixed-subsistence forager societies (n = 690; 3–18 years; 52% girls). We investigated how environmental factors, local ecological risk, and men and women’s relative energetic contributions were associated with cross-cultural variation in child and adolescent time allocation to childcare, food production, domestic work, and play. Annual precipitation, annual mean temperature, and net primary productivity were not strongly associated with child and adolescent activity budgets. Increased risk of encounters with dangerous animals and dehydration negatively predicted time allocation to childcare and domestic work, but not food production. Gender differences in child and adolescent activity budgets were stronger in societies where men made greater direct contributions to food production than women. We interpret these findings as suggesting that children and their caregivers adjust their activities to facilitate the early acquisition of knowledge which helps children safely cooperate with adults in a range of social and ecological environments. These findings compel us to consider how childhood may have also evolved to facilitate flexible participation in productive activities in early life.
Scientific Reports, vol. 12, n. 8054, May 2022