Humans' ability to brainstorm solutions, share them with others, and improve upon them over time sets us apart from even our closest primate relatives. This has allowed us to develop complex learning systems and innovative tools to ensure humanity’s success since the Stone Age.
But just how ancient humans deployed and built upon existing information 300,000 years ago has long mystified scientists, which is why researchers from the University of Zurich and Central European University in Budapest set out to determine how social interactions between various groups of hunter-gatherers helped to spur advanced communication. To do so, the team turned to one of the few remaining hunter-gatherer societies left in the world: the Agta people in the Philippines.
The Agta people have a strong social structure built around small family units linked by friendship. Members of various family groups will often travel to neighboring campsites to exchange information and socialize. To see how ideas were spread, tracking devices were put on 53 individuals to record social interactions every hour over the course of one month. Study participants were then paired together and given six medicinal plants that they could use to treat various ailments. They were told to come up with different combinations and share their findings among their connections.
Over the course of the study, the tracking devices documented thousands of interactions both between people of their own camp as well as daily visits to outside camps. Researchers then developed a computer model based on the recorded interactions and simulated what it would look like if a fictitious plant-based medicinal product was created. This coexistence of ideas allowed for a variety of perspectives to offer different medicinal solutions to similar health-related problems; people share knowledge with every encounter, eventually leading to improved remedies over time.
"It is fair to say that 'visits between camps' is the social media of current hunter-gatherers," said study author Andrea Migliano, professor of anthropology at UZH, in a statement. “When we need a new solution for a problem, we go online and use multiple sources to obtain information from a variety of people. Hunter-gatherers use their social network in exactly the same way."
Researchers then created a secondary artificial network that simulated conditions where everyone is connected and information is immediately transmitted, much like the internet. They found that transferring information this way took longer for adaptations to occur because in-person collaboration does not happen simultaneously across different groups.
"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," said author Lucio Vinicius, from UZH's Department of Anthropology.
The findings, published in Science Advances, build on previous work that found fluid social structures characterized cultural exchanges in Homo sapiens as long as 320,000 years ago, a connection that may have “facilitated the sequence of cultural and technological revolutions that characterizes our species."
"Humans have a unique capacity to create and accumulate culture. From a simple pencil to the International Space Station, human culture is a product of multiple minds over many generations, and cannot be recreated from scratch by one single individual,” said study co-author Dr Mark Dyble.