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Observing how honey-gathering skills are passed from one generation to another, and how such skills are retained, provides important insight into the way people acquire and deploy different types of social knowledge at different ages, research shows.
For a tribal community living in the forested Western Ghats mountain range in southern India, the central cultural, spiritual and economic role honey collection plays is illustrated by its name — Jenu Kuruba — which translates into “honey collectors”.
“Understanding how people learn directly affects what information they get and how they use their environments – understanding the transmission system of behavior as a whole can help predict how a culture evolves,” said Kathryn Demps, lead author of Social learning across the life cycle: Cultural knowledge acquisition for honey collection among the Jenu Kuruba, India – a project supported in part by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
“This knowledge can help us understand how individuals are motivated to learn sustainable methods to ensure their future livelihoods,” she said, adding that traditional skills and knowledge persist among the Jenu Kuruba people because honey production is a valuable economic strategy.
About 30,000 Jenu Kuruba live in or near state-controlled, dry deciduous forests, earning the bulk of their income from work on local coffee estates, and supplementing their wages by selling wild honey for about $2 a liter (34 US ounces) to local shops and a state-run cooperative, according to the article by Demps and her colleagues.
Researchers collected data from about 470 villagers, interviewing 196, and discovered that children begin learning about honey collection between ages 6 and 8.
They acquire a majority of their basic knowledge about bees and honey collecting before age 12 from household members, but physically cannot begin to collect from the most productive giant honeybee until they are large enough and strong enough, the report said. At later ages, they are more likely to learn from peers and successful individuals in order to hone skills and knowledge.
By age 18, boys collect honey from hives on tree branches or rocks, often more than 40 meters (130 feet) above ground level, in groups of three to eight people.
Related tasks, including cutting honeycomb, catching honey in a basket and making smoky torches to reduce stings, are divided among the men, who often collect honey at night when bees are less aggressive.
Men usually stop collecting honey between ages 40 and 50, but some continue to accompany the younger men in an advisory role.
Girls are prohibited from collecting honey once they reach puberty.
IMPACT OF AGING
Most people gain basic honey-collecting knowledge by their early twenties – very few learned or mastered a skill after age 30 and none after age 40, researchers found.
“Finite practice time and limited observational opportunities mean that individuals who forgo learning at young ages might never make up the deficit later in life,” the report said.
The most knowledgeable people interviewed for the study were not necessarily the eldest, indicating that researchers should not assume that elders are a store of expertise for cultural knowledge, it said.
Interviews revealed that in the oldest group, age-related decline in mental and physical abilities had an impact.
The transmission of knowledge from parent to child was found to be important, but expanding the sample of potential teachers gives an individual a greater chance of acquiring better or more updated information, the report said.
“Ritualistic knowledge is generally maintained by a limited number of individuals, and therefore, it is unlikely to be possessed – and therefore taught – by one’s parents,” it added.
“We find that for these skills to persist, there has to be motivation – in this case money – as well as exposure to knowledgeable individuals and to the environment where the activity takes place,” she said, adding that if one of the three factors is removed, the skill set, and thus the entrepreneurship will likely be lost to later generations.”
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This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and is supported by NSF-Cultural Anthropology Program and ANR-French National Research Agency Project (Public Policies and Traditional Management of Trees and Forests-POPULAR). The work in India was part of the project Managing Biodiversity in Mountain Landscapes.