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The Role of Social Capital in Human Evolution: lessons from BaYaka Hunter-Gatherers

Chaudhary, CN; (2017) The Role of Social Capital in Human Evolution: lessons from BaYaka Hunter-Gatherers. Doctoral thesis , UCL (University College London). Green open access

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Many of Homo sapiens’ defining characteristics relate to our sociality—our advanced mind reading abilities; sophisticated languages; diverse cultural norms and practices that manifest as highly differentiated rituals and religions; and ‘hyper-cooperative’ tendencies. Thus, understanding the evolution of human sociality is indispensable for a complete understanding of humanity. One question that remains unanswered is how individual differences in social integration within the group affect biological fitness. I explore this question by studying BaYaka hunter-gatherers living in the rainforests of Northern Congo. For the vast majority of our species’ history we lived as hunter-gatherers, hence such populations offer a valuable insight into human evolution. The overarching hypothesis presented is that cooperation is a fundamental means by which hunter-gatherers surmount the ecological challenges they face. Therefore, if certain individuals have superior access to cooperation from other group members, which I refer to as social capital, they are likely to achieve higher fitness. I use childcare practices as a case study to demonstrate how essential cooperation is for the BaYaka. Employing a novel method, using wireless sensing devices to track proximate interactions, I find mothers only account for ~25% of the proximate interactions of 0–4 year olds. The analyses also show that this form of cooperation in childcare is preferentially directed towards kin and reciprocal partners. I use economic gift games to measure social capital and confirm that it varies considerably between group members. Moreover, I find that it is associated with larger food sharing networks and higher body-mass index, indicating it enhances one’s ability to buffer the food risk inherent with hunter-gatherer subsistence. Additionally, I show that social capital positively predicts polygynous marriage in men (whereas physical attributes do not), as well as age-specific fertility in women. Finally, I find some evidence for a heritable component of social capital, suggesting that the evolutionary advantages it confers may accrue over multiple generations. These results have important implications for our understanding of the processes underlying human social evolution. Additionally, they help to explain how fitness variance emerges in egalitarian hunter-gatherers, and why social integration is consistently linked with mental and physical health.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Title: The Role of Social Capital in Human Evolution: lessons from BaYaka Hunter-Gatherers
Event: UCL (University College London)
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS > Dept of Anthropology
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1559561
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