Raising Trust

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

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.

Cultural outlooks

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.

British psychiatrist John Bowlby formulated attachment theory more than 30 years ago. Bowlby asserted that infants develop relationship styles based on their emotional experiences with parents or other caregivers. A child’s interaction style hinges on a set of basic assumptions—or what Bowlby called an internal working model—about what to expect from intimate encounters.

Concerned, attentive parents who react to their child promptly nurture a secure and trusting model of self and others, according to attachment theory. If parents often misread a child’s behavior or react to the youngster in unpredictable or insensitive ways, a growing sense of insecurity stokes feelings of anxiety, aggression, and distrust.

Secure and insecure attachment styles, usually revealed in studies by a series of experimental separations and reunions of parents and their kids, have been reported within many societies. Scientists have also found some overall differences in the ratio of secure to insecure attachment styles in different countries.

Internal working models provide a mental bridge from infant care to cultural modes of interaction, Hewlett and his colleagues theorize. Infants learn strategies of trust or mistrust in dealing with caregivers that prepare them to soak up broader cultural guidelines, they suggest.

For foragers such as the Aka, intensive infant care helps shape adults who regard their comrades and the local environment as inherently trustworthy and generous, Hewlett asserts.

His argument builds not only on Bowlby’s ideas but also on a theory published in 1990 by anthropologist Nurit Bird-David of the University of Haifa in Israel. In many hunter-gatherer societies, people think metaphorically of their physical environment as a benevolent relative, Bird-David contends.

For instance, several African forager groups speak of the forest as a parent, whereas Australian Aborigines regard their environment as a procreational partner. These metaphors convey a common picture of the environment as a loving, unconditionally supportive, and sharing family member, Bird-David says.

Consistent with this trust in a “giving environment,” as Bird-David calls it, members of forager groups often share food without haggling or rancor, spend relatively little time each day seeking food, and make no arrangements to store food, she argues.

The concept of a giving environment held by the Aka and other foragers reflects the interpersonal trust nurtured in their infants, Hewlett argues. Still, the extent of infant-care disparities between neighboring Aka and Ngandu communities surprised Hewlett’s group.

Such contrasts probably don’t stem from specific survival needs of one group versus the other, Hewlett says, since they both operate successfully in the same forest. Instead, childrearing practices in each population may represent nearly ironclad traditions that promote distinctive attachment styles and worldviews.

“Internal working models help to preserve cultures,” Hewlett holds.

Minority view

That’s a minority view in anthropological circles these days, he acknowledges. Several decades ago, researchers such as Margaret Mead reported links between children’s personality development and their broader cultural beliefs. However, findings from this culture-and-personality school proved disappointingly ambiguous to many scholars.

Hewlett hopes to reinvigorate the culture-and-personality approach. But anthropologist Sara Harkness of the University of Connecticut in Storrs comments that, so far, Hewlett hasn’t demonstrated that attachment styles or internal working models developed during infancy help mold adult attitudes about trust and sharing. She has conducted fieldwork among Kipsigis herders and farmers in Kenya.

To further his hypothesis, Hewlett should examine the emergence of trust in Aka individuals followed from infancy at least through childhood, Harkness says. He also needs to devise a way to measure attachment styles in Aka youngsters, she adds. So far, he’s only toted up selected infant-care behaviors.

Anthropologist R. Richard Grinker of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., adds that without assessments of individual infants’ attachment styles, it’s unclear whether internal working models or any other presumed mental processes promote an Aka faith in a giving environment. Moreover, no long-term investigations have documented the extent to which Aka conceptions of sharing and cooperation differ from those of either nearby farmers or distant urbanites, Grinker argues.

“I’m really surprised that the Aka have so much nonmaternal breast-feeding,” he says. “But we don’t know what the Aka think about this activity or why they do it. Findings such as this certainly don’t indicate that European-Americans are meaner people than the Aka.”

Grinker has done fieldwork with neighboring groups of Lese farmers and Efe (Pygmy) foragers in a forested region of northeastern Zaire. Lese and Efe communities trade, intermarry, form family partnerships, and otherwise interact closely. In his book Houses in the Rain Forest (1994, Univ. of Calif.), Grinker argues that the Lese and the Efe represent separate ethnic groups that have coalesced into a single society.

He suspects that the same applies to the Aka and the Ngandu, and thus he remains skeptical that the two groups differ dramatically in how they raise children and think about the environment.

Inadequate theory

Hewlett’s attempt to meld child rearing to culture faces other problems, according to anthropologist Polly Wiessner of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “The internal-working-model approach should be given a try, but Hewlett’s group may have hitched it onto an inadequate theory of how foragers view their environment,” she asserts.

Only the 20 percent to 30 percent of forager societies based in tropical forests regard the environment as generous and giving, she argues. Those locales contain food and other resources that foragers can obtain year-round, often supplemented by trade with close-by farmers.

Hunter-gatherers who live elsewhere, such as the !Kung San of southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert, face seasonal and yearly fluctuations in food sources. For them, the environment is an unreliable giver, Wiessner contends.

Under these harsh circumstances, members of forager groups store social obligations in place of provisions, she says. Families participate in vast networks of gift giving based on their ability at any particular time to dole out food or other valued items. In essence, families purchase a social-insurance policy by sharing what they have during times of relative plenty.

Recipients of their generosity then do all they can to return the favor when it’s needed. Children are thrust into this world of give-and-take at the time of weaning, around age 3 or 4, Wiessner holds. Weaning begins suddenly, usually with the birth of a sibling. Youngsters who for several years have had unlimited access to their mother’s milk go through a period of emotional turmoil and scaled-back nutritional intake. For a year or two after weaning, child-mortality rates rise noticeably.

Newly weaned youngsters have to look to people other than their mothers for support. At the same time, the weaning’s wrenching abruptness creates wariness about trusting in the generosity of others, Wiessner holds. Earlier attentive child care, such as that measured by Hewlett’s group, can’t protect against this trust erosion, she says.

Sudden weaning after extended breast-feeding may also inspire a sense of possessiveness and jealousy that pervades social relations in many forager societies. “The amount of jealousy and bitching about who owes what to whom in many hunter-gatherer camps is astounding,” says Wiessner.

She argues that attachment theory fits better with this scenario than with Hewlett’s suggestion that greater amounts of infant care breed more trust. Bowlby’s writings on attachment posit only that children require a basic amount of reliable, loving care to feel secure, she notes, whereas substantial neglect or mistreatment generates insecurity.

“The quality of child care and unusual experiences during childhood, such as traumatic weaning, may shape internal working models, if they exist,” Wiessner says. Hewlett remains undeterred by such objections and plans to track the Aka, Ngandu, and U.S. infants into their childhood years. His team hopes to evaluate attachment styles in Aka youngsters by observing them in naturally occurring stressful situations.

“The concept of internal working models is powerful and useful because it links experience, emotions, cognition, and biology,” Hewlett says. “It’s an integrated approach to understanding a key mechanism that shapes and transmits culture.”

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.