Hunter-Gatherer Education: Workshop

Our first workshop highlighted the double-edged sword of formal education for hunter-gatherer groups

The double-edged sword of formal education

Rachel L. Kendal, Lorna Winship and Bella Reichard

Our first workshop, organised by the Hunter Gatherer Education Applied Working Group at the Arctic University of Tromsø (Norway), took place from 28-30th March 2023. The Grant team could not have hoped for a better demonstration of turning an idea into reality. Not only did the Arctic serve up beautiful fresh snow, sun and Northern Lights; the topic, diversity of participants and energy of the event were inspirational. Here, we highlight the complexity, and importance, of the topic of hunter-gatherer education whilst also pinpointing how the novel remit of the ‘applied working group’ funding enables academics to effect societal change.

The Applied Working Group

The CES Transformation Fund has funded 4 Applied Working Groups. The remit for this novel funding was for applicants to implement cultural evolution through activities with real impact on, for example, policy, politics, business, conservation and welfare, etc. A major aspect of the funding is a workshop uniting researchers and policy-makers to engage in impactful activities, and produce policy briefs, visual summaries and infographics. Applicants were enabled to include any participants appropriate to catalyzing real change: a range of academics, non-academic organisations (e.g., NNGOs, INGOs, Think Tanks), and stakeholders (e.g., community members) that represented a diverse composition (considering geography, career stage, gender, etc.).

The “Hunter Gatherer Education – Research and Advocacy Group”, formed in 2018, received funding from the CES Transformation Fund to facilitate an Applied Working Group led by Jennifer Hays, along with Velina Ninkova, Attila Paksi and Edmond Dounias.

Contemporary Hunting and Gathering Societies 1

The term contemporary hunting and gathering societies, or hunter-gatherers, refers to small scale, mostly egalitarian societies that until recently depended primarily on non-domesticated resources obtained directly from their natural environment, through hunting, gathering plant food, fishing, or scavenging. Though extremely diverse, such groups share some common characteristics in regard to their social structure, and their relations with surrounding groups and state governments. Hunter-gatherers, who are a subset of Indigenous peoples, form a global group of approximately 10 million people. They thus make up about 2% of Indigenous Peoples (who number approximately 476 million people), and about 0.12% of the human family. Despite their small numbers, hunter-gatherers speak approximately 5% of human languages – they are thus an important part of human diversity. However, their small group size and egalitarian social structures are at odds with many of the norms embedded and practiced in hierarchical institutions, including schools, and they are often highly stigmatized.

Increasingly, research is demonstrating that hunter-gatherer knowledge systems are critical for addressing several rapidly accelerating global crises, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and food security. Unfortunately, these knowledge systems, and their modes of transmission, are under threat from many factors, including land loss, denigration of Indigenous cultures and ways of life, and assimilative social institutions – such as compulsory formal schooling.

Educational challenges faced by Hunter Gatherer Societies

Contemporary hunting and gathering (h-g) societies face extreme challenges in accessing relevant formal education. This summary cannot begin to do justice to the complex problem (see here for further reading), but in brief:

  • A lack of schools near h-g communities means that learners have to live in boarding schools, isolated from family and often subject to stigma and discrimination.
  • Formal education can lead to assimilation to a majority culture, resulting in the formally educated child losing their connection with traditional h-g knowledge and values, and resulting in isolation from their own community.
  • There is a clash of values between learners from h-g societies, where personal autonomy and responsibility are assumed from a very young age, and schools, where obedience to a strict schedule is enforced.

Accordingly, one may question whether the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 4) to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” is helpful for h-g groups.

However, despite the conflicting values and current issues, formal education is needed to enable h-g groups to advocate for their rights, preserve access to their lands and livelihoods, and access majority culture systems (e.g., to engage in diversified economic activity, or obtain formal ID), if they wish. The crucial point is self-determination: it should be possible for those that desire it, to access formal education that does not perpetuate the ongoing colonial legacies of stigma, isolation and assimilation, and enables retention of h-g cultural identity.

The Workshop

Over three days, the Applied Working Group brought together 35 participants who represented a diversity not often seen at academic events.

Pushing for societal change: The workshop at the Arctic University in Tromsø united researchers, policymakers and activists from across the world.

The group included international experts in the fields of education, Indigenous studies and cultural evolution, representatives from Indigenous communities, and global activists. Hearing stories of Indigenous hunter-gatherers first-hand, and the similarity in challenges faced by those from countries as diverse as India, Indonesia, and Namibia, was powerful for all participants. Indeed, the inclusion of Indigenous h-g community members in such a workshop was unprecedented and historical for several participants and their h-g communities.

Workshop convenor Jennifer Hays (left) with Seetha Kakkoth of Kannur University, South India, and Vinod Challan, a PhD candidate at Cochin University, South India and member of the Cholanaikkan tribe.

Each morning, there were plenary sessions and discussions. One aspect that ran through these sessions was the exchange of perspectives, both from different country contexts and from different identities (community members, researchers, activists). This is vital as hunter-gatherers make up a small yet uniquely diverse percentage of Indigenous peoples’ and, as such, facilitating their connection can serve to amplify their voice on the global policy stage. Moreover, it ensures diverse voices are heard when tackling the problem. Relatedly, it was noted that around the globe, hunter-gatherers have difficulty equitably accessing UN processes, which in turn prevents effective application of the UN declarations regarding education and Indigenous knowledge, among other rights.

The heart of the workshop was the afternoons spent in “task groups” aimed at developing templates to enable communication of the scientific, pedagogical, and human rights arguments for advancing alternative approaches to education for h-g communities. These included materials for communities to use to explain their way of life to various audiences as well as guidelines for influencing policy makers at the local and global level. The work of each group continues online, having clarified objectives and points of view in the in-person sessions. The Applied Working Group is making great strides, and has already written a communiqué and submitted it to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). This success is testament to the benefits of involving policy makers (here from the UN and UNESCO) in the workshop.

It was felt that the workshop was a major step towards making connections between people with different expertise, perspectives and networks, and setting up frameworks for finding and promoting solutions. Indeed, the group’s communique specifically “invite(s) the UNPFII to identify a focal point on Education, to work with the HG-Edu group and others interested in supporting appropriate educational approaches that affirm Indigenous peoples, their livelihoods, and their ways of knowing”. This call for appropriate education approaches echoes a powerful statement from an expert speaker that currently “the school system is not sophisticated enough to cope with (the sophistication of) hunter-gatherer or Indigenous knowledge”.

The teaching goes on: Hunter gatherer education systems embody cultural transmission and cultural evolution.

The workshop was a humbling experience. We are impressed by the Applied Working Group’s efforts to draw attention to contemporary hunting and gathering societies as a global group and their important contribution to human diversity. Unfortunately, their knowledge of sustainable management of ecosystems representing biodiversity hotspots, and Indigenous education systems, are particularly endangered, and one aim of the workshop is to draw global attention to their validity and importance. This must, however, be on their own terms. Notable was the overwhelming feeling that the cultural evolution of Indigenous hunter gatherer communities and their education systems must be driven by community members rather than directed by academic or policy experts, who rather play an important facilitatory role. Here, the application of cultural evolution research to societal issues may serve to protect the rights of hunter gatherer communities on their terms and protect the potential of hunter gatherers to contribute to humanity’s resilience in times of severe climate and biodiversity crises – along with other Indigenous Peoples worldwide.


We thank all who attended the Hunter-gatherer education Applied Working Group workshop and particularly Jennifer Hays for advice regarding this post.

1 Hays, Jennifer; Ninkova, Velina; Dounias, Edmond (2019). Hunter-gatherers and education: Towards a recognition of extreme local diversity and common global challenges. Hunter-Gatherer Research. Vol. 5.

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