The science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein once wrote, “Each generation thinks it invented sex.” He was presumably referring to the pride each generation takes in defining its own sexual practices and ethics. But his comment hit the mark in another sense: Every generation has to reinvent sex because the previous generation did a lousy job of teaching it.
In the United States, the conversations we have with our children about sex are often awkward, limited, and brimming with euphemism. At school, if kids are lucky enough to live in a state that allows it, they’ll get something like 10 total hours of sex education.1 If they’re less lucky, they’ll instead experience the curious phenomenon of abstinence-only education, in which the goal is to avoid transmitting any information at all. In addition to being counterproductive—potentially leading to higher rates of teen pregnancy2 and sexually transmitted illnesses3—this practice is strange. Compare it to the practices of many small-scale societies, where children first learn about sex by observing their parents!
One of the most distinctive features of the human species is its practice of cultural transmission. Our ability to retain, refine, and pass down cultural knowledge across generations has helped us survive in every habitat on the planet—and even in space. Three-hundred and fifty generations ago, we were making the switch from foraging to early agriculture. Now, the sum of human cultural knowledge, passed from parent to child for thousands of years, is a Google search away.
So why is it that, despite having immediate access to virtually every area of knowledge, we Westerners paradoxically fail to directly share the most important of these insights with the next generation? Sometimes intentionally under the banner of protecting young minds, sometimes unintentionally as a result of the way our communities are structured, we dam critical information and force new generations to start from scratch, leaning on their own intuitions and the scant experience of their peers to chart a way forward. From birth and parenting to death and burial, we have built a knowledge dam that makes it harder to lead successful lives.
It doesn’t have to be this way—and, in fact, it wasn’t, until very recently.
We arrived shortly before sunset, after a 3-hour canoe ride down a winding river in the Amazon. This was the main way to reach the Shuar community of La Libertad. To welcome us, the elected leader invited us to dine with his family, offering to serve one of his hens. At this suggestion, his wife nodded, picked up a sharpened machete, and recruited the help of her young daughter, who looked to be no more than 8 years old. Together, mother and daughter grabbed the unlucky bird and proceeded to slaughter it with a swift machete strike to the neck. The act itself was less surprising than the casualness with which it was done; neither batted an eye at what was, at the time, the first animal I’d seen slaughtered.
Throughout my years of fieldwork with the Shuar, I’ve witnessed a catalog of behaviors that would shock Western1 parents. I’ve imagined how they would stare in alarm at the sight of children setting fire to fields, walking barefoot past tarantulas, or mowing grass with knives. But as the years have gone on, I’ve found myself less surprised by the culture of the Shuar, and more surprised by our own. Why don’t we allow children access to the world as we know it, a world that involves death and sex and, yes, sometimes even machetes? After all, there’s good reason to think that small-scale societies like the Shuar, though not perfect mirrors into the past, are living in ways that closely resemble the lifestyles of our predecessors. Maybe they’ve held onto something we’ve recently lost.
Every generation has to reinvent sex because the previous generation did a lousy job of teaching it.
One of the more defining features of small-scale societies is the structure of their communities. While Westerners live in nuclear families with low birth rates, those in small-scale societies tend to have more children and live in extended networks of nearby kin. For instance, many Shuar now live in centros, or centralized communities. Homes are often built around community centers or open fields, with clusters of families, commonly linked through a patriarch, living next door to each other. Many homes are still built in the traditional style, with bamboo walls and thatched roofs, inside which everyone shares one, big room. This makes privacy a scarce resource and also means that much of life takes place in full view of the next generation (and sometimes in front of the odd anthropologist).
Another unique aspect of small-scale societies like the Shuar is that they are frequently natural fertility populations, meaning there’s little or no systematic use of birth control (some plant-based birth control does exist). As you can imagine, one consequence of this is that there are lots of babies, and they’re everywhere. From an early age, most people—particularly young girls—are tasked with caring for their siblings, so by the time they are having their own children, they already have years of experience. This experience can prove useful because babies are confusing, especially at first. Countless new fathers have begun their lifelong foray into dad jokes by quipping about the need for some sort of user’s manual—a need an enterprising doctor and his son have recently responded to.4 But the very fact that Westerners often look to things like books to discover what babies actually are is a strange phenomenon in itself.
One reason for this confusion is that we don’t live like the Shuar or our ancestral predecessors, in large networks of nearby family. Instead, our communities are structured around the nuclear family, with other kin largely absent, unable to offer guidance. That, coupled with the social and economic challenges of our labor system, make it difficult for knowledge to make it through the generational pipeline. And in some countries, such as the U.S., previous generations may have already lost some of their baby-specific knowledge. For example, in the recent past, mothers relied much more heavily on formula feeding: 3 out of 4 of babies in America were bottle-fed in the 1970s.5 This means firsthand knowledge of successful breastfeeding may have been temporarily lost within families, and had to be rediscovered by more recent generations. Perhaps this is a contributing factor to why only a third of American mothers make it through the first six months of nursing.
Compare the experience of American mothers to those of the Himba, an ethnic group in Namibia who largely survive by herding livestock. Virtually all Himba mothers breastfeed, and they make it look easy; women can be spotted multi-tasking—walking, chatting, eating—all while they feed their infants. But work by Brooke Scelza, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, has revealed that Himba mothers initially struggle with breastfeeding at about the same rates as American parents.6 So how do they persevere? Brooke argues that it’s all about grandmothers: Himba mothers move in with their own mothers in the last stretch of their pregnancy and stay put throughout the first few months. This means they have consistent access to both direct care and, importantly, cultural information about early childcare. The importance of generational knowledge in early parenting is evident across an ecologically and geographically diverse range of other small-scale societies, such as the Martu of Australia,7 the Hadza of Tanzania,8 and the Efe of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.9 We see a similar pattern among the Shuar. The birth and care of a new infant is a family affair, with grandparents and siblings frequently present to help by sharing what they know.10 This cultural transmission from previous generations, in fact, is arguably one of the reasons why grandmothers are so important.
Another generational lapse in our cultural knowledge of parenting may have happened with sleep. Look at virtually any small-scale society in the world and you’ll see the same thing: Mothers sleep side-by-side with their infants, ready to nurse at a moment’s notice. Even the composition of human breast milk suggests this mode of feeding is more natural. It is relatively low in fat compared to other mammals, meaning that humans are demand feeders—our babies nurse when they need to, even through the night. This is a world away from the average American parent, sleeping in a separate room from his or her infant, anxious as to whether their child will sleep. As psychologist Cristine Legare discovered on the island of Tanna, non-Western parents don’t just think this practice is strange, they think it’s concerning. “How can mothers tell if their babies are safe if they’re sleeping in another room?” they would ask her in astonishment. Both of those practices—the separation of infant from parent and the expectation of a full night’s sleep—are out of step with what takes place in communities like those of Melanesians and the Shuar.
How did we end up with these norms? Like the case of breastfeeding, there’s reason to think there was a generational loss of information. Up until the 19th century, co-sleeping was widely practiced, even in the U.S. Industrialization, the medicalization of infancy, and the fear of coddling children changed our norms. Today, co-sleeping is being slowly reintroduced into our culture, but essentially without firsthand knowledge of how to do it.
At the other end of the human experience is death. Among small-scale societies, funerary practices often involve whole communities. The Torajans of Indonesia have been known to delay burial for months or years, and engage in a ritual called the Ma’Nene, in which they proudly display the bodies of their family members, washing, grooming, dressing, and walking them around their villages. The Wari’ of western Brazil not only directly interact with the corpses of their loved ones, but ritually ingest their bodies as a way of honoring them. Funerary practices among the Shuar included laying out the deceased in hollowed-out logs and placing them in small houses, in which food offerings were made for two years. This practice has largely disappeared, as many Shuar now bury their dead in communal cemeteries, often near missions. However, unlike in the West, there is no specialized trade for mortuary practices; the family and the community must perform the burial themselves.
We Westerners go out of our way to avoid thinking about death.
Though these practices may seem foreign to Westerners, variations of these themes exist in our cultures as well. The best-known may be the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico, a multi-day holiday where families adorn the graves of their loved ones with altars of marigolds, even bringing toys for dead children. These are lively community gatherings filled with food, music, and costumes. Importantly, children are encouraged to participate in these traditions, a process that psychologist Karl Rosengren has described as an important part of their socialization.
Despite being virtually the only assured experience in life, we Westerners go out of our way to avoid thinking about death entirely. We look away from it, outsourcing funerary processes to others, and even avoiding using the word, opting for euphemisms like deceased, departed, or passed away. We also take extra care to keep our children ignorant of it under the guise of protection, again preventing information from being transferred from one generation to the next. Our lack of vocabulary and experiential priming can make it hard to deal with death when we inevitably encounter it.
It wasn’t always like this. Just as breastfeeding was once more prevalent in our culture prior to the 1970s, there was a time when death was welcome in our living rooms. In the Victorian era, the funeral parlor was the parlor of your home; the body of loved ones would often rest on an ice board, and embalming might take place in the kitchen. Friends and families would gather together to have tea, to chat, all the while saying goodbye to the body on display. It’s likely that this practice helped the bereaved deal with the reality of death.11
I often find myself thinking back to a classic adage about the role of anthropology; our task, it’s been argued, is to “make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” When I first visited the Shuar, I kept noticing the ways in which their lives were strange to me. I’d never lived in a world where privacy was scarce, where children were independent and free to structure their own time, where family was just a holler away, and parents didn’t sugarcoat the realities of birth and sex and death. But as time has gone on, one of the oddest parts of fieldwork now is returning home. I see our societies in a different light, acutely aware of how unaware we are of the strangeness of our own culture and the ways in which it’s transmitted. In the case of parenting, the breakdown of information transmission between generations was probably unintentional. After all, how many parents and grandparents have the resources to live together? But there’s something else going on with sex and death. In those cases, there is an intentional sequestering of information, an attempt to leave the innocence of youth unspoiled. This is the Knowledge Dam, the stoppering of cultural transmission to the next generation, and it’s a mistake. The next generation of humans will encounter death. They’ll have sex, and drink alcohol. They’ll have children, and raise them, and their children will all eventually die, too. The less we share our understanding of the world, the less prepared our children are to understand it. Cultural transmission has scaffolded the human experience for millennia. Why stop now?
Dorsa Amir is a Ph.D. candidate in biological anthropology at Yale University.
1. US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “Results from the School Health Policies and Practices Study 2014” (2015).
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Lead Image Credit: Marie Hickman / Getty Images