Routes to Language





Teaching and Learning of Skills


Joint Attention & Deixis

Likely Emergence:

Homo ergaster

About 2 million years ago


Ostensive-Inferential Communication

Protolanguage 1


References and other reading

R. Boyd, P.J. Richerson & J. Henrich (2011). The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation. In PNAS, 108:2, 10918-10925.

L. Fogarty, P. Strimling & K.N. Laland (2011). The Evolution of Teaching. In Evolution, 65:10, 2760-2770.

P. Gärdenfors & A. Högberg (2017). The Archeology of Teaching and the Evolution of Homo docens. In Current Anthropology, 58:2, 188-208.


Teaching and learning of skills refers to the human ability to share knowledge across individuals and generations. Boyd, Richerson and Henrich (2011) argue that the culture of teaching is even more crucial for the human species’ evolutionary success than its cognitive abilities. Their main argument is that humans rely on gradually accumulated knowledge that could not be acquired by an individual. If the main advantage of humans was cognition it should be possible to figure out how to prosper in any environment, which is unlikely. This emphasizes the importance of teaching and learning from others for the human population.


The levels of teaching defined by Gärdenfors and Högberg (2017) show clearly which forms of teaching exist and from which point on humans surpass other species. A basic distinction is made between non-intentional and intentional teaching. Many animals show non-intentional teaching by giving their offspring opportunities for imitating or emulating their behaviour. It is a matter of debate whether animals show intentional teaching. Humans, on the other hand, are capable of all levels of intentional teaching. These include intentional evaluative feedback, demonstrating, communicating concepts and explaining relationships between concepts. For the two highest levels symbolic language is more efficient, which links to human language development.


As an example, Gärdenfors and Högberg (2017) use Oldowan tool-making-skills. This primarily involved knapping, which requires demonstration. Teaching is necessary to establish it within a culture and to make it accessible for further improvements. This relates directly to the importance of cultural learning emphasized by Boyd, Richerson and Henrich (2011).


The question remains why other species have only adopted teaching to a slight extent. Fogarty, Strimling and Laland (2011) suggest that teaching is only favoured when pupils cannot easily acquire skills individually or through imitation. However, teaching is also only favoured when skills are not too difficult to acquire, as otherwise the teacher might lack knowledge to pass it on. This might explain the rarity of teaching among animals. One reason why humans developed teaching is the fact that our “cumulative culture renders otherwise difficult-to-acquire valuable information available to teach” (Fogarty, Strimling & Laland, 2011, p. 2760). This corresponds with Boyd, Richerson and Henrich’s (2011) argument that the human species’ success is mainly achieved through the ability to share gradually accumulated knowledge.


It can be concluded that especially advanced levels of teaching and learning greatly rely on human cumulative culture and fostered human language development.


Kerstin Groetzer, 2019