What image comes to mind when you think about early humans? While many of us would picture our ancestors as primitive beings, researchers suggest that they may have lived in gender equal societies. The study, published in the journal Science, links the development of inequality with the emergence of agriculture.
“There is still this wider perception that hunter-gatherers are more macho or male-dominated. We’d argue it was only with the emergence of agriculture, when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged,” Mark Dyble, an anthropologist at University College London (UCL) and lead author, told The Guardian.
Researchers from UCL collected genealogical data from two modern hunter-gatherer groups, which included 191 adults across 11 camps from the Philippines and 103 adults across nine camps from the Congo. They studied both hunter-gatherer societies for over two years, and found groups to include around 20 people, with these groups moving every ten days or so. These modern hunter-gather societies provide researchers with the opportunity to study early human societies, as they are the closest living examples of our ancestors’ lifestyle and social organization.
Researchers first wanted to understand why hunter-gatherers lived with individuals that weren’t closely related to them, despite individuals within the society preferring to live with family members. To figure this out, they developed a computer model that assumed people would choose to live with their close kin, and then simulated the process of camp assortment to see what would happen.
"While previous researchers have noted the low relatedness of hunter-gatherer bands, our work offers an explanation as to why this pattern emerges. 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,” Dyble said in a statement.
However, the results found camp relatedness to be high when sex influenced camp assortment. This is typically the case in male-dominated societies that have developed agricultural systems, researchers say. In contrast, groups were less related when gender roles were more equal and both men and women had a say on who joined groups and where they lived, which researchers observed in hunter-gatherer societies.
Dyble suggests that gender equality may have had a selective advantage in early human evolution, he tells The Guardian: “It gives you a far more expansive social network with a wider choice of mates, so inbreeding would be less of an issue. And you come into contact with more people and you can share innovations, which is something that humans do par excellence."
While both men and women had equal influence on decision-making, the study suggests it was the development of agriculture that changed this dynamic. As people were able to collect resources, Dybe says it was more worthwhile "for men to start accumulating resources and becomes favorable to form alliances with male kin.”