Toys as teachers: A cross-cultural analysis of object use and enskillment in hunter-gatherer societies

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Studies of cultural transmission—whether approached by archaeological or ethnographic means—have made great strides in identifying formal teaching and learning arrangements, which in turn can be closely aligned with models of social learning. While novices and apprentices are often in focus in such studies, younger children and their engagement with material culture have received less attention. Against the backdrop of a cross-cultural database of ethnographically documented object use and play in 54 globally distributed foraging communities, we here discuss the ways in which children make and use tools and toys. We provide a cross-cultural inventory of objects made for and by hunter–gatherer children and adolescents. We find that child and adolescent objects are linked to adult material culture, albeit not exclusively so. Toys and tools were primarily handled outside of explicit pedagogical contexts, and there is little evidence for formalised apprenticeships. Our data suggests that children’s self-directed interactions with objects, especially during play, has a critical role in early-age enskillment. Placed within a niche construction framework, we combine ethnographic perspectives on object play with archaeological evidence for play objects to offer an improved cross-cultural frame of reference for how social learning varies across early human life history and what role material culture may play in this process. While our analysis improves the systematic understanding of the role and relevance of play objects among hunter–gatherer societies, we also make the case for more detailed studies of play objects in the context of ethnographic, archival and archaeological cultural transmission research.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Archaeological Method and Theory
Pages (from-to)32-63
Number of pages32
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2023


  • Cross-cultural analysis
  • Cultural transmission
  • Innovation
  • Niche construction
  • Object play
  • Toys


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