In the Efé tribe in Zambia, babies are born into an ‘intensely social’ world that is comprised of co-operative relationships (Morelli et al., 2014). Efé infants experience rapid change in partners as they enter relationship with kin and others. Efé babies seemed to enjoy exposure to and learning from multiple partners and were smiling, laughing and attentive for most of the time observed. They rarely show signs of distress, probably due to the responsive nature of their care. Efé life is very public in nature so good care is visible for all to see. Older children are counselled on good care-giving well before they engage in it and less experienced adults are given gentle advice. The atmosphere of ‘constant watchfulness’ means caregivers are accountable, resulting in babies having ‘competent social partners’. The energetic demands of infant caregiving are ameliorated by the sharing of care. Caregivers are expected to be attentive or else not interact with babies. Babies from the Aka foragers direct attachment behaviours to a number of people who care for them and it is thought that babies develop up to six attachment relationships – a phenomenon known as ‘co-operative attachment’. Cross-cultural studies show that secure attachment relationships routinely exist outside the mother-infant dyad (Crittenden, 2014). While the mother often remains the primary caregiver, co-operative childcare is characteristic of most cultures around the world and is part of our evolutionary past.
Efé new-borns suckle other females even when the mother is present (Mesman et al., 2016). On average, in the first 18 weeks there are 14.2 caregivers. This ‘extremely dense social network’ leads to prompt responses to any infant distress. At night only the mother cared for the infant and sleep was often interrupted by episodes of playful interaction. From the point of view of attachment theory, the night might be a very stressful time, when infants need protective caregiving the most. The work on the Efé suggests that sensitive responsiveness at night strengthens the attachment relationship. In Israeli Kibbutz, where infants sleep away from their mothers who then are largely unavailable, there are higher rates of attachment insecurity (Mesman et al., 2016). These infants are cared for by their mothers during the day but a stranger at night. Higher levels of resistant attachment have been recorded in these contexts, probably due to inconsistent responsiveness. Disorganised attachment is also high in another Kibbutz sample, possibly due to the unpredictable circumstances.
Responsive parenting is modelled by others in the Efé community with plenty of role-models available and the tribe collectively responsible for child care (Kendall-Tackett, 2014). This contrasts with modern American mothering, with the lack of support often starting before birth. In one study 46% described their birth experience as traumatic with many women experience depression and anxiety as a result. Support, which may have been high during pregnancy, quickly declines after birth. At home mothers experience social isolation in a culture where babies are barred from many activities. We can learn from hunter-gather cultures by seeking to provide their web of connections, which enables babies to weather extreme adverse events like the death of a parent without adverse mental health repercussions. A grass-roots movement has begun that seeks to support postpartum women – a ‘doula’ supports women emotionally and practically during this period.
The Hadza of Tanzania also employ multiple caregivers with “close, indulgent and affectionate physical caregiver-infant proximity and responsiveness” in the first years of life (Mesman et al., 2016). When Hadza women forage, they take infants with them while toddlers stay in camp. Mothers were generally more effective at soothing, but all other caregivers were very sensitive to fussing and crying. The Hausa in Nigeria practice agriculture and have an average of four caregivers but the mother takes most responsibility for physical care (Mesman et al., 2016). The infants were ‘almost always’ in close physical contact or proximity to caregivers. The Hausa had high social density which meant adults or older siblings responded promptly to attachment signals like crying. The infants only explored their environment when the attachment figure was present and infants display attachment behaviour towards three or four figures. Children are raised in an ‘attachment relationship network’ although the infants are mainly attached to one adult – the one who holds and interacts with the baby the most, whether or not that was the mother.
Hadza mothers foraging with their infants offers a challenging example for modern societies – if Hadza women could forage while also tending to their infants why would it not be possible for modern parents to work in offices, shops and elsewhere with their infants in tow (supported, perhaps, by onsite childcare)? This kind of scenario solves two problems: The dual risks of separation and solo parenting. Integrating infants into the workplace creates ‘social density’ and the possibility of creating an ‘attachment relationship network’. The integration model holds that in a network of multiple attachment relationships, secure attachment can compensate for insecure ones (Mesman et al., 2016). In cultures that emphasise relatedness, high proximity and indulgence may lead to low levels of avoidance. Several ethnographic studies give accounts of sensitive parenting as normative in Hunter-gatherer cultures.
Crittenden, A. (2014). Ancestral Attachment – How the evolutionary foundation of attachment informs our understanding of child maltreatment interventions. In Narváez, D., Valentino, K., Fuentes, A., McKenna, J. J., & Gray, P. Ancestral landscapes in human evolution: Culture, Childrearing and social wellbeing. Oxford University Press, USA.
Endicott, K. and Endicott K. (2014). Batek childrearing and morality. In Narváez, D., Valentino, K., Fuentes, A., McKenna, J. J., & Gray, P. Ancestral landscapes in human evolution: Culture, Childrearing and social wellbeing. Oxford University Press, USA.
Kendall-Tackett (2014). Social connectedness versus mothers on their own. In Narváez, D., Valentino, K., Fuentes, A., McKenna, J. J., & Gray, P. Ancestral landscapes in human evolution: Culture, Childrearing and social wellbeing. Oxford University Press, USA.
Mesman, J., Van Ijzendoorn, M., Sagi-Schwartz, A. (2016). Cross-cultural patterns of attachment. In Cassidy, J., & Shaver, P. R. Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications (3rd ed.). Guilford Publications.
Morelli, G., Henry, P., and Foerster, S. (2014). Relationships and Resource Uncertainty: Cooperative Development of Efe Hunter-Gatherer Infants and Toddlers. In Narváez, D., Valentino, K., Fuentes, A., McKenna, J. J., & Gray, P. Ancestral landscapes in human evolution: Culture, Childrearing and social wellbeing. Oxford University Press, USA.