Where innovations flourish: An ethnographic and archaeological overview of hunter-gatherer learning contexts

Sheina Lew-Levy, Annemieke Milks, Noa Lavi, Sarah M. Pope, David E. Friesem

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Research in developmental psychology suggests that children are poor tool innovators. However, such research often overlooks the ways in which children's social and physical environments may lead to cross-cultural variation in their opportunities and proclivity to innovate. In this paper, we examine contemporary hunter-gatherer child and adolescent contributions to tool innovation. We posit that the cultural and subsistence context of many hunter-gatherer societies fosters behavioural flexibility, including innovative capabilities. Using the ethnographic and developmental literature, we suggest that socialisation practices emphasised in hunter-gatherer societies, including learning through autonomous exploration, adult and peer teaching, play and innovation seeking may bolster children's ability to innovate. We also discuss whether similar socialisation practices can be interpreted from the archaeological record. We end by pointing to areas of future study for understanding the role of children and adolescents in the development of tool innovations across cultures in the past and present.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere31
JournalEvolutionary Human Sciences
StatePublished - 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Financial support. SLL was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellowship (award no. 756-2019-0102).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 The Author(s).


  • Adolescence
  • Archaeology
  • Child development
  • Childhood
  • Hunter-gatherers
  • Innovation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Cultural Studies
  • Anthropology
  • Applied Psychology


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