Dr Gul Deniz Salali and her team studied BaYaka communities living in the rainforests of Congo collecting videos of 40 children from early infancy to adolescence as they carried out different activities.
They discovered that a child as young as 13 months was able to hold a machete effectively, simply by watching how her parents and older siblings handled the blade.
Young girls were also observed embarking on mushroom foraging trips by themselves, and a pair of six-year old twins already knew which mushrooms to pick up, while a younger girl observed them.
Instead of being instructed how to use tools or carry out tasks, the youngsters copied their elders, and their parents only stepped in to directly teach them if they made a mistake.
It is the first paper to show that teaching is used principally among hunter-gatherers to communicate social norms, whereas skills that can be observed visually are learnt through imitation and practice.
Dr Salali said western parents could learn a lot from how hunter-gatherer communities brought up their children.
“Hunter-gatherer teaching is quite different than the Western style teaching where there usually is a hierarchical relationship between the teacher and the pupil,” she said.
“Rather than giving direct instructions, hunter-gatherer teachers often create an environment to give the child a learning opportunity.
“An example will be a mother giving a machete to her child and monitoring her activity without interfering. Depending on how the child performs she gives negative or positive feedback and the child adjusts her behaviour accordingly.
“Their way of parenting is quite different than “helicopter parenting” and, I think, can inspire us on how to raise self-sufficient adults.”
The team said the project showed that teaching is rare and subtler than in Western societies add raises questions over whether it is better to create an environment where children learn for themselves and only receive feedback on whether they make the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ choice dependent on the activity.
They said parents could adopt practices such as allowing youngsters to use a glass, rather than a plastic cup at an early age and trust they will copy how to hold the vessel.
“I think we can improve the wellbeing of children, especially city-dwelling children, by creating outdoor playing areas where they can engage in unsupervised activities,” Dr Salali added.
“We have an amazing ability to learn by copying what others do, and hunter-gatherer infants use this ability in their everyday life.
“One way to improve Western childrearing would be to create an environment where children can play in mixed-aged playgroups, or where they can interact with other community members.
“For example, an environment where elderly people and children can interact may benefit the wellbeing of the elderly and give children more learning opportunities.”
The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.