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First steps: In the Mbendjele BaYaka, neighbors, friends, older children participate in the education

Photo: Karl Tapales / Getty Images

MIRROR: Mr. Chaudhary, you researched childcare in a hunter-gatherer community that still lives in the Republic of Congo today. Why?

Chaudhary: I think it's worth changing perspective: humans lived as hunter-gatherers for most of their evolutionary history. To a large extent, this determines why we are today, who and how we are. This is because evolution and natural selection are very slow processes. There are many areas of our biology and psyche that may continue to be better adapted to hunter-gatherer life than the one we live in Western countries today. The way of life that seems so normal to us has only been around for a short time, and it is at odds with how the human species has structured its daily lives for most of its history.

SPIEGEL: So what can we learn from hunter-gatherers for our modern lives?

Chaudhary: I am reluctant to give specific advice. One thing is clear: we have lost many aspects of the community fabric and thus social support systems. Many people are lonely, on their own. If, on the other hand, you look at hunter-gatherer groups, which are still organized in this way today, they all live in a large group. Each family has its own small hut, where sometimes the grandmother or a friend sleeps. The cabins are tiny, and all of them together basically form one big house. There are about 50 people living in the group, whose everyday life is very connected, they meet constantly, have constant contact with each other. They celebrate, perform rituals. Cooperation and help between the individual members is of fundamental importance. The boundaries between family, relatives and friends are blurred.

MIRROR: What does this mean for raising children among the Mbendjele BaYaka, the group they have been researching?

Chaudhary: I caution against romanticizing these groups. These are not "untouched" peoples, as one might imagine. These people, of course, are in contact with the world as we know it. In addition, these groups have to deal with huge problems in many areas: the infant mortality rate, for example, is 30 to 40 percent. But yes, this group has a social organization that is very close to that of historical hunter-gatherers. They are dependent on daily food supply, and because this ties up so much manpower, they have to share the child-rearing jointly.

MIRROR: What does this division look like in concrete terms?

Chaudhary: We observed a total of 20 infants and toddlers and noted every interaction the child had with each caregiver. 40 to 50 percent of childcare came from someone other than the mother. We call these people "Allomothers". Men are involved, but especially older children. Even at the age of two, toddlers mostly hang out with other children. The group has much more confidence in children much faster. As a result, the children quickly become independent.

SPIEGEL: In some German states, daycare centers have a childcare ratio of one to eight — one adult takes care of up to eight children. What about the Mbendjele BaYaka?

Chaudhary: A child is cared for by up to 20 people. Nine out of twelve hours, the children have direct physical contact with a person. Often the babies sleep in cloths that an adult hangs around his neck. There is always someone in close proximity to the child. If it cries, it reacts extremely quickly. Within 20 seconds, someone is there, trying to meet the child's needs. Carry it around. Feed or bathe it. Sing songs to him. Childcare means an enormous focus on the child.

SPIEGEL: What does that mean for the mother of a toddler?

Chaudhary: It's not like this completely relieves her, and she has to continue to take care of cooking and gathering. But she gets real breaks through everyone's cooperation. If the mother wants to take a nap, that's fine. Someone else will take over.

SPIEGEL: What role do men play in these communities?

Chaudhary: Again, there are differences, but in general they are involved in raising children. Usually not as much as women, but still responsible. There are groups where men, when they are not hunting, are never more than an arm's length away from their child. Fathers offer their nipples to the child to calm him down when the nursing mother is not around.

MIRROR: In the Global North, topics such as long-term breastfeeding or co-sleeping, i.e. the question of whether parents should share a bed with their offspring, are highly controversial. How do hunter-gatherers do it?

Chaudhary: Co-sleeping is the norm in almost all hunter-gatherer groups. Mothers also breastfeed much longer than mothers in Western societies. Sometimes up to four years. All the needs of the child are met as well and quickly as possible. As a result, the children do not become dependent, but they cut the cord much faster. Which, by the way, also coincides with the "attachment theory", which assumes that close proximity leads to children becoming independent and self-confident more quickly. They know that they can always go back in an emergency. This gives psychological stability. The hunter-gatherers in the Republic of Congo can perfectly handle the knife and make a fire at the age of five.

MIRROR: What worries you about living together in countries like Great Britain or Germany?

Chaudhary: We in industrialized societies live in nuclear family units. We focus on this small group of people when it comes to raising money and food, and we only take care of members of this cell. Sure, there are neighborhoods, but we don't really have anything to do with them. There was a recent survey by the British Social Attitudes Survey. People were asked if they would ask their neighbors for a favor. Only 30 percent said yes. It can be said that the higher the average income in a country, the smaller the family unit. This creates enormous pressure for parents. Because they have to shoulder everything alone or in pairs. Procuring food, organizing, covering costs, educating children.

MIRROR: We have social instruments – kindergartens, daycare centres, day care, parental allowance – to relieve parents.

Chaudhary: We have all these facilities, fortunately, to give mothers the opportunity to work after childbirth. But that doesn't take the pressure off. The women hardly have any breaks. The lower the social support for parents, the higher the risk of all sorts of mental health problems. Postnatal depression, for example, is prevalent in the West. I observe a great deal of exhaustion among my acquaintances in Great Britain. Friends tell me: That's just the way it is when you have children. You just have to accept that for a few years. But we shouldn't do that.

SPIEGEL: What do we need instead?

Chaudhary: There needs to be a real period of recovery for women, and yes, I'm focusing on women because they continue to bear the brunt of it more often than average, whether they go to work or not. It's bizarre that we leave parents so alone – especially when we compare it to how our species lived and evolved for a long time. Evolutionary biologists and anthropologists are convinced that shared childcare among many people was one of the decisive levers that made us successful as a species.

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