Evolution of Hominin Social Systems


This article summarises research into the evolution of hominin social systems arising from the studies of archaeological materials, hunter–gatherer ethnography and primatological studies. The history of models in archaeology is briefly summarised, and it is noted that there has been a gradual shift from ethnographically based models to those admitting a combination of hunter–gatherer and primate analogies. Where prehistoric group sizes have been estimated from anatomical and archaeological data, these suggest trajectories of increasing group size through time. The fission–fusion or multilevel societies of extant hunter–gatherers show clear parallels to those of some primates, suggesting both ecological and sociocognitive constraints on social structures. Mating systems can be reconstructed via measurements of skeletal and dental dimorphism, though these necessarily reflect social aspects of intersexual contact rather than patterns of genetic reproduction. Finally, contemporary readings of the archaeological record suggest that the evolution of hominin social systems can be viewed as a gradual stretching of the scale of social life.

Key Concepts:

  • Early archaeological models of hominin social systems were based on simple hunter–gatherer analogies.

  • Observed commonalities between primate and human societies have led to a wealth of new research.

  • Prehistoric group sizes can be estimated via both anatomical and archaeological proxies.

  • Group sizes show an exponential increase through the course of the Palaeolithic.

  • Hominins developed multilevel societies which paralleled those of chimpanzees in some aspects and baboons in others.

  • Sexual dimorphism in hominin fossils can be used to reconstruct mating systems.

  • The evolution of hominin social systems is characterised by a gradual increase in the spatial scale of social life.

Keywords: group size; fission–fusion; multilevel; hunter–gatherer; primate; sexual dimorphism

Figure 1.

Group sizes of extinct hominins, estimated from neocortex ratios as per the analysis of Aiello and Dunbar . A basic conclusion is that the trajectory of the Australopithecines is relatively slowly increasing, as opposed to the exponentially increasing trajectory of the genus Homo. This has been updated, containing 191 hominin endocranial capacities, and is taken from Grove et al..



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Grove, Matt(Sep 2013) Evolution of Hominin Social Systems. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0024961]