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Social structure of hunter-gatherers explained through sex equality

Posted May 21, 2015

New study at University College London explained unique social structure of hunter-gatherers through sex equality in residential decision-making. During the research scientists interviewed hundreds of people in communities of hunter-gatherers in Congo and the Philippines. It is the first to demonstrate the relationship between sex equality in residential decision-making and group composition.

Elderly Agta couple in Philippines. New research showed that hunter-gatherer communities are often diverse in terms of kinship, which might be the result of relatively equal roles of both sexes. (Credit: Sylvain Viguier)

Elderly Agta couple in Philippines. New research showed that hunter-gatherer communities are often diverse in terms of kinship, which might be the result of relatively equal roles of both sexes. (Credit: Sylvain Viguier)

Of course, these unique communities of hunter-gatherers were studied before this research too.  Previous study has noted the low level of relatedness in hunter-gatherer bands, which is very surprising, because humans depend on close kin to raise offspring. That is why humans usually prefer living close to parents, siblings and grandparents to take care of children.

New study took more than two years to finish. Researchers lived among populations of hunter-gatherers in Congo and the Philippines. They were collecting important data to analyse the structure of these communities and how groups are composed in term of kinship ties. The information they collected allowed analysing how individuals in each community they visited were related to each other.

The researchers did hundreds of interviews and collected genealogical data on kinship relations, between-camp mobility and residence patterns. Even though all of these communities were pretty small, research showed some interesting results. These hunter-gatherers were found to be living with a large number of individuals with whom they had no kinship ties. Scientists did some computer modelling of these communities to find out how this was possible and how such groups were composed.

This computer model showed that at the very beginning of group formation individuals populated an empty camp with their close kin – siblings, parents and children. It turns out sex equality is very important in composing such groups. When males are a dominant decision making group, as is typically the case in male-dominated pastoral or horticultural societies, camp relatedness was high. Situation is different when both men and women have relatively equal influence in the group, as is the case among many hunter-gatherer societies, where families tend to alternate between moving to camps where husbands have close kin and camps where wives have close kin.

As it was noted before, living with close kin has its advantages when it comes to raising children. However, author of the study, Mark Dyble, has an explanation why such communities, where individuals live between individuals without kin relations, emerge – “It is not that individuals are not interested in living with kin. Rather, if all individuals seek to live with as many kin as possible, no-one ends up living with many kin at all”.

Studies of such communities can benefit our understanding not only about these groups that are under increasing pressure from external forces. They can also help to have a better idea about societies in the past and how hunter-gatherer communities were organised and managed to survive for so long. However, it also shows that societies, dominated by one sex, may have had problems when compared to communities with relatively equal role for both sexes.

Source: UCL

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