We’re big on teaching cooperative practices, even while we encourage competition. Humans are the only species to cooperate to the degree that we do, and this cooperation may have allowed for many other derived social traits related to group living to emerge, including generosity, sharing, teaching and learning, and shared intentionality. But how and why did cooperation emerge in the first place?

Hunter-gatherer societies might provide us with some clues. Research suggests these groups are not static kin-based societies as previously believed: ethnographic analysis show significant and varying shifts in residence patterns, with both male and female dispersal to other groups. Alternative models of residence suggest that group benefits may favor non-kin associations. For example, several unaffiliated males between groups linked via the same female could experience decreased hostilities, open cross group visitation, and overall increased interaction between unrelated parties. Larger and more diverse group membership increases opportunities for introducing innovations and preserving these new ideas across generations because when people live together, there are more opportunities to observe innovations, evaluate success, and imitate traits or behaviors that are most useful or common.

If cooperation is the glue that binds societies together, then it’s not the byproduct of contact, but a necessary element to human sociality and relationships. We all know that cooperative efforts are far from perfect–too much depends on individual personalities and aspirations. Anyone who has attempted to get a work team to to a shared goal has surely experienced this first hand. That is not to say that there are not obviously differing priorities between corporate groups and hunter-gatherers, but the idea that individual personalities need to be managed should not be overlooked. Non-cooperative group members are sometimes singled out and may be ostracized if they cannot convert others to their perspective or methods.

The degree to which modern hunter-gatherer societies are related to ancestral groups is complex. We know that cultural contact changes these groups radically, and that for many, their traditions are fading fast or being transformed into theater for tourism groups so modern-day research using these groups will not give us the whole picture. While we may never know the degree that cooperative tendencies have been impacted by modern contact–even if that contact is simply an awareness of an other–we do know that behaviors change over time as social dynamics shift. It does seem that cooperation is necessary for group stability, but it’s unclear what factors decide which behaviors are adopted and which discarded. The correlation between group size and knowledge retention suggests a complex relationship that is not fully explained by cooperation–nonetheless, understanding how the dispersal of kin can impact group dynamics is certainly important in understanding how networks develop.

A version of this post appeared on Anthropology in Practice in 2011.

Hill, K., Walker, R., Bozicevic, M., Eder, J., Headland, T., Hewlett, B., Hurtado, A., Marlowe, F., Wiessner, P., & Wood, B. (2011). Co-Residence Patterns in Hunter-Gatherer Societies Show Unique Human Social Structure Science, 331 (6022), 1286-1289.

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