Remote Tribe Has Social Networks like Ours

By Landau, Elizabeth | St. Joseph News-Press, January 25, 2012 | Go to article overview

Remote Tribe Has Social Networks like Ours


Landau, Elizabeth, St. Joseph News-Press


(CNN) -- It was 2006 when a man approached anthropologist Coren Apicella and asked, "Have you heard about this man, Osama bin Laden? I just heard about him, and I heard he sets fire to things. I heard he's hiding and he's a very dangerous man."

The man is from a society called the Hadza, one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer populations in Africa and one of the closest remaining approximations to how the earliest humans lived. This community in Tanzania is so cut off from modernity that news of bin Laden's existence hadn't reached this man until five years after 9/11.

People in Hadzaland may not use Facebook or drive cars, but they have something fundamental that's in common with the Western world: Their networks of social ties look a lot like ours, according to a new study led by Apicella. Most interestingly, researchers report in Nature, the Hadza tend to be friends with people who are similar to them in the behavioral traits of cooperation and egotism.

That's a striking result if the Hadza are truly a window into the earliest human societies. Cooperative behavior - acting in a way that personally costs the individual but benefits others in the group - has always befuddled evolutionary scientists. Established ideas about natural selection suggest that only organisms with the "fittest" genes survive and reproduce; altruism isn't part of that picture. But Apicella's study offers an explanation.

"If we live in these networks where we tend to interact with people who are like us - cooperators tend to interact with other cooperators - altruists could help each to other to survive, and that's how altruism as a trait survived in humans," said James Fowler, professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, and co-author of the study.

Investigating social networks

Apicella teamed up with Fowler and Harvard's Dr. Nicholas Christakis, the duo that has risen to prominence in the study of social networks. They've had their hands in research showing how everything from happiness to obesity to loneliness spreads through networks of people who know one another, and consolidated the wealth of knowledge on this subject in the book "Connected."

Scientific studies have found that people who resemble one another physically, and even genetically, tend to form social ties. There's a genetic basis for networks, too. Identical twins tend to structure their networks the same as each other, and more similarly than fraternal twins do, Fowler said. That got the researchers interested in how far back in human history modern social network structures have existed.

"One of the reasons why I think Facebook is such a phenomenon: It's because it's tapping into something that's part of our identity as humans," Fowler said.

Who are the Hadza?

Apicella has been visiting the Hadza since 2004, and all of her trips put together total over one year with them. She communicates with them in Swahili, although they primarily speak a click-based language they call Hadzane.

Their society has a sexual division of labor, Apicella said. …

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