Raising Trust

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, July 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Raising Trust


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Some forager groups may nurture a sharing sense in their offspring

In a densely forested section of central Africa, a woman goes about her daily chores in a camp of Aka foragers. No matter the task, she keeps her 3-month-old baby strapped to her chest. The baby rarely loses contact with her, even at night. Breast-feeding occurs frequently, often on demand. If the youngster begins to cry, the woman may gently rock her or even pass her to a female friend for some supplemental breast-feeding.

A short walk away, another mother of a 3-month-old works in a farming community of the Ngandu people. She usually leaves her baby on a soft mat and picks up the child from time to time. Breast-feeding occurs when the mother takes a break from planting, weeding, and preparing food. Her baby's cries often go unanswered.

Barry S. Hewlett, an anthropologist at Washington State University in Vancouver, has noted such differences during his fieldwork among the Aka and their Ngandu neighbors over the past 25 years. He suspects that child-rearing practices play a crucial role in perpetuating the Aka's unusually trusting view of other people and the natural world. Many other foraging groups--also known as hunter-gatherers--hold similar attitudes and treat their babies much as the Aka do, Hewlett proposes.

"The hunter-gatherer way of life is dramatically different than life in the West, or even life in [small] farming communities," Hewlett says. "[Foragers'] social and emotional development is difficult to understand."

He and his colleagues, including psychologist Michael E. Lamb of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Washington, D.C., nonetheless are exploring whether Aka infant care contributes to the foragers' cultural mindset about trust and sharing.

Hewlett's idea has its critics. If his contention holds up, though, it raises the possibility that foragers, often pegged as primitive curiosities by members of Western societies, can teach outsiders some valuable lessons about nurturing compassion and trust.

Baby care in 20 Aka families looks much different from that in 21 Ngandu families on nearby farms and 21 middle- to upper-class white families living near Washington, D.C., Hewlett's group reports. Observations of all the families, each with two parents, occurred in and around their homes for 3 hours on four different days.

Aka infants, 3 to 4 months old, were held nearly all the time during the day and evening observations, mainly by their mothers but also by their fathers and other community members. Ngandu infants were held a majority of the time by parents or other adults but still much less than Aka youngsters. U.S. infants were held only a small part of the time and less in the evening than during the day.

Infant feeding or nursing occurred about four times an hour among the Aka, twice the rate observed among both Ngandu and U.S. families.

Moreover, 11 Aka babies were breast-fed by women other than their mothers during the observation period. This practice occurred with only two Ngandu infants and none of the D.C.-area children.

Aka infants fussed and cried less often than the other youngsters, especially the Ngandu babies. Aka parents tried to sooth fussing and crying by walking, rocking, or feeding their kids, since they usually were already holding them.

In contrast, U.S. parents usually picked up crying infants and tried to distract them with toys or other items. Ngandu parents frequently did nothing at all for tearful or agitated infants.

The researchers' initial findings appear in the April CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY.

Demanding scientists want to know how such differences in baby care could plausibly contribute to distinctive cultural outlooks. Hewlett hopes to satisfy their curiosity with the help of a longstanding concept in developmental psychology known as attachment theory. …

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