Hunter-Gatherer Culture and Storytellers — Dare to Know

Hunter-gatherer culture is often seen as survival of the fittest individuals by brains or brawn. Find out how new studies show that the opposite is true.

Back in university, we went to see Ringo Starr in a movie called Caveman. He starred alongside Shelley Long from Cheers and former NFL defensive end John Matuszak.

In the film, Atouk (played by Ringo) outwits and overthrows the bullying alpha male Tonda (played by Matuszak). This wins him the heart of the beautiful Tala (Shelley Long).

Ringo was considered the best actor among the Beatles but sadly, that isn’t saying much. The film was fairly well received at the time as the playful farce it was meant to be, but it hasn’t aged well.

It was Ringo’s last attempt at acting, which is probably just as well. Anyway, I brought up the film, not to play film critic, but to point out a misconception it spread about hunter-gatherer culture.

Our ideas of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle are wrapped up in our understanding of evolution. Our notion of survival of the fittest leaves us imagining that getting ahead in prehistoric human cultures took either domineering strength or low cunning,

The problem is, that’s not what scientists mean by “fit”. They’re not necessarily talking about brains or brawn.

Instead, being fit means being suited to your surroundings. The reason modern humans have become Earth’s top species is that, when we work together, we can adapt to any environment on the planet.

The other mistaken idea many of us have is confusing natural selection and cultural selection. Natural selection is about individuals and how differences in their bodies give them different chances of living and reproducing.

Homo sapiens, like all primates, are sociable. Early humans lived together in hunter-gatherer groups and shared the gift of culture — the ability to pass knowledge and skills, like the bow and arrow, on to each other and to future generations.

Individual traits didn’t guarantee long-term success. When cultures clash, it’s the culture with the best community spirit that prevails, not the one with the strongest or the smartest individuals.

A new study from the University of Zurich confirms this. The researchers studied the Agta people. They live in the Philippines as one of the few remaining hunter-gatherer groups in the world.

A sample of Agta adults volunteered to wear tracking devices for a month. Some of them lived in camps in the forest and others had set up camps along the coast.

The scientists ended up with records of thousands of transactions between Agta individuals. Of course, most of these meetings were between members of their extended family and other people in the same camp.

The real discovery was that there were visits back and forth between camps just about every day. The Atna like to visit, share advice, and problem-solve

The researchers took this data and used it to set up a computer model. They tried to see how hard it would be for some simulated Atna computer characters to gather wild plants and invent a powerful new plant-based medicine.

Their imaginary characters shared their medicinal knowledge every time they met with each other. According to the computer model, it takes between 250 and 500 interactions to come up with the new medicine.

Then they tried a different scenario. They set things up with modern people who had instant access to everyone else using an extensive communication network.

It took the simulated network people 500 to 700 rounds of interaction to get the same thing done. The reason is that the networkers developed their solution one step at a time whereas the Atna could talk things over and break into groups, working on several parts of the problem at the same time.

Professor Lucio Vinicius was one of the lead authors of the study. He explained the significance of the results this way. “Our findings indicate that this social structure of small and interconnected bands may have facilitated the sequence of cultural and technological revolutions that characterizes our species as we expanded within and then out of Africa,”

That leads to another study of the same hunter-gatherer people. This one comes from University College London.

The researchers sat down with a group of Agta elders and encouraged them to tell stories they would typically tell each other and their children. They ended up with a sample of 89 stories.

The stories usually involved things we see in nature like wild animals or the sun and stars. These subjects would take on human qualities.

In about 70% of the cases, the moral of the story was to follow social norms and co-operate with others in the group. One story talks about a male sun and a female moon.

The couple disagreed about who should get to light up the sky, so they agreed to take turns, one during the day and the other at night. We should solve conflicts by cooperating.

Daniel Smith, one of the lead researchers explained, “These stories appear to co-ordinate group behaviour and facilitate co-operation by providing individuals with social information about the norms, rules and expectations in a given society.”

The team dug deeper into the storyteller’s role. They found that, among the Agta, storytellers were more valued by the community than even the best foragers.

They were also more sought-after mates and tended to have larger families. Most importantly, researchers found that the camps with the most storytellers were the most co-operative and successful.

Telling stories wasn’t just something to pass the time. Nor was indulging the storytellers in the camp a luxury.

Another lead author, Andrea Migliano explained it this way, “Hunter-gatherer religions do not have moralizing gods and yet they are highly cooperative towards the whole community. Thus, storytelling in hunter-gatherers was a precursor to more elaborate forms of narrative fiction such as moralizing high-gods, common in post-agricultural populations”,

These two studies tell a story of their own. First of all, human culture is vital to the survival of the group and of each individual.

When people visit with each other and share stories, it’s their version of social networking. What’s more, it’s more effective than anything we can pull off online today.

Finally, storytellers are more valuable than any individual provider. They are the source of a group’s social cohesion, which is vital for everyone.

Science and technology have made these truths hard to see for modern humans. We need to learn a new set of science-based stories that will reunite our culture so that we can tackle the challenges our planet faces.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

University of Zurich
Hunter-gatherer multilevel sociality accelerates cumulative cultural evolution
University College London
Cooperation and the evolution of hunter-gatherer storytelling

Friendly Faces Drove Human Evolution
Music is Universal After All, Harvard Study Finds
Swing and Sway the Chimpanzee Way

Originally published at on March 11, 2020.

Enjoying my Freedom 55 while blogging about science and delivering selective business to business writing services.

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