Children in the Mbendjele BaYaka society: diet, foraging, and acquisition of skills and botanical knowledge

A research report by Prof. Dr. Karline R. L. Janmaat (Instituut voor Biodiversiteit en Ecosysteem Dynamica, Universiteit van Amsterdam) on master thesis work carried out by Jorin Veen in 2019-2020.

Modern hunter gatherers need a wide variety of skills and knowledge to collect and consume the available resources. It has been hypothesized that the extended juvenile period in humans has enabled us to acquire these skills and knowledge. To study this, we focused on Mbendjele foragers in the northern part of the Republic of Congo. They live in semi-nomadic egalitarian societies, where food items are widely shared on demand. The children are known to start foraging independently from a young age, offering a unique opportunity to study their diet, foraging behaviour, and acquisition of skills and knowledge.

Research team on way to the forest. On a boat on the beautiful Motaba river together with – from left to right – prof. dr. Karline R.L. Janmaat, Moise Dzabatou, Bryndan O.C.M. van Pinxteren, and Merveille Dzabatou.

            Before data collection, the informed oral consent of the children, together with that of their parent(s) and/or caretaker(s), was obtained. In total, 27 children were accompanied during their foraging trips over a rainy period of six months in 2016 (March – August) and during a dry period of five months in 2019 – 2020 (November – March). The data were collected using a combination of a GPS and a voice recorder. In addition, the botanical knowledge of 17 children was tested using pictures of several parts (fruit/seed, leaf, trunk, bark) of foraging-related plant species known to produce edible fruits or seeds.

Flowers as hair decorations. After a full day of collecting fish, some of the girls decided to decorate their, mine, and Bryndan’s hair with flowers.

            It was found that the children spent most time collecting and eating fruits and tubers, with other food items such as caterpillars and honey being highly seasonal. Interestingly, the results indicated that boys spent more time collecting fruits (and honey) whereas girls spent more time collecting tubers (and fish). This resembles a sexual division in foraging behaviour previously observed in adults. Since sharing is a key value in this society, equal proportions of fruits and tubers were eaten by both boys and girls. Finally, the botanical knowledge of the children improved with increasing age, indicating a learning curve of the different foraging-related plant species during childhood.

            These results will, hopefully, provide new insights in the diet and foraging behaviour of modern hunter-gatherers and their acquisition of foraging-related skills and knowledge. In addition, I hope that it will contribute to the protection of the unique lifestyle of the Mbendjele themselves. Almost, if not all, Mbendjele are currently residing in logging concessions. This will most definitely reduce the available wild resources, which probably explains that more than half of their contemporary diet consists of agricultural foods.            

Specifically, I would like to thank my supervisor Prof. Karline Janmaat and Bryndan van Pinxteren for their major contributions, and Haneul Jang and Vidrige Kandza for data collected in 2016. Additionally, I would like to thank Moise Dzabatou and his daughter Merveille Dzabatou for local help with transport and translations. Also, the University of Amsterdam, Max Planck Institute, and the Institut de Recherche en Sciences Exactes et Naturelles (IRSEN) have contributed. Eternal gratitude goes towards the Mbendjele themselves, for welcoming me in their camp, letting me learn their language and participate in their highly valued dance and music activities. Finally, I would like to thank Treub Maatschappij for enabling this research and valuable personal experience. Like the Mbendjele would say: Esengo ike!

Disclaimer: Informed oral consent was obtained of the children and their parent(s)/caretaker(s), both for participation in the research and the use of their pictures. For further use of the pictures, permission has to be asked to Prof. Karline Janmaat and Jorin Veen.