If prehistoric hunters and gatherers had access to social networking sites, they would probably end up with networks that looked identical to modern ones, according to a study published on January 25th in Nature, which was based upon field work among a tribe of Tanzanian hunter-gatherers.
The research, accomplished by a team of American and British scientists, studied the patterns that emerged in social networks, in which both cooperation and selfishness seemed contagious. It offers a rare perspective on the social psychology of early humans and how it has shaped modern social life.
The ancestors of the human race, who migrated out of Africa 50 to 100,000 years ago, are thought to have lived similar lives to the modern Hadza people, a nomadic foraging tribe which hunts birds and small game around Lake Eyasi in the Great Rift Valley.
The researchers presented 205 Hadza people with a series of tasks, including surveys about preferred camp-makes, to whom they would give gifts, and their willingness to donate their own honey to a communal pool. Harvard post-doctoral researcher Coren Apicella built up a dataset that roughly described the tribe’s tendency toward cooperation.
The Hazda people themselves are one of the most extreme departures of industrialized societies, and they remain relatively isolated from modern cultural influences, state the authors of the study. All of the people examined the properties of social networks, as you’d expect to see in modernized societies.
These properties include the likelihood of similar people forming social ties, friends of friends can also be friends, reinforced social norms, and that popular people befriend other popular people. Social cooperation is a gamble, which entails its own risk. If cooperators cluster, their advantage is further multiplied, which fosters cooperation in a tribe, allowing it to catch on and evolve.
The cooperating structure permits clustering, allowing cooperators to increase their numbers because they benefit the general good of the tribe.