Having already been through one national lockdown, and with a Tier 3 lockdown in West Yorkshire imminent, I was thinking about the separation this creates amongst friends and family. It comes as no surprise that many people throughout lockdown have faced feelings of loneliness, and seen their mental health decline as a result. I started thinking about how innately social we are as a species, something intertwined with our DNA which is why being ‘alone’ is so difficult.
So I wanted to write something completely different from my usual blogs and take you on a bit of an archaeological/evolutionary journey to how and why we are inherently social species. Many people confuse archaeology with one of two things, history or palaeontology (dinosaurs). The actual definition is the study of ‘human history through physical remains’.
As a curious teenager, I was obsessed with the question ‘what makes us human’. So I chose to study prehistoric archaeology, specifically the Palaeolithic (so anything between 1.8 million and 10,000 years ago). I wanted to know, if you take us out of this modern world, would you still see a human as we know it? I then became fascinated with the brain and brain evolution, this is where I learnt about the true social nature of humans, which is what I would like to share.
I will give a brief overview of our journey through different human species, then cover ‘the social brain hypothesis’ and how we became the social butterflies we are today.
A brief history to ‘Homo’s’ (the homo genus)
Depending on what you believe, according to scientific studies, the first ‘Homo’ (essentially meaning they started walking on 2 legs and had opposable thumbs) lived around 2.3-1.65 million years ago. We then went through a series of different versions of Homo (the most famous you will of heard of is Homo Neanderthalensis aka Neanderthals). Even through this time Homo’s were evolving rapidly, developing stone tool technology, discovering fire and developing different hunting techniques. However, the main change throughout the Homo journey was the brain. Eventually leading up to what we are today, Homo Sapiens.
How did we become Homo Sapiens?
So we today are Homo Sapiens (well Homo sapiens sapiens, a little more modern), but we have been around for a long time, around 200,000 years in fact! With a brain size of 3x the size of our closest ancestor, scientists believe one of the reasons our brains developed so quickly throughout the Homo journey was due to our diet. The body only has so much energy, a lot of which is taken up through digestion. Once the early Homo species discovered fire, cooking foods etc the theory is, digestion became a doddle! Freeing up a lot of energy that redirected itself to developing the brain. Thus, we developed bigger brains.
Homo Sapiens in the Upper Peaolothic (50,000yrs-10,000yrs ago) lived in tribes, were nomadic hunter-gathers who also painted a lot of cave art. They created stone tools, would have fashioned some cloths, developed boats and managed to get to Australia! They also would have had their own way of communication or ‘language’.
So where does being social come into this?
What really makes us as a species different to all other animals on the planet is our complex brain. Specifically the development of the neocortex. This allows for sensory perception, development of language, reasoning, conscious thought, and the ability to hold multiple conversations.
The Social Brain hypothesis published by British Anthropologist Robin Dunbar indicates the principle pressure behind increase brain size is ‘sociality’. The development of the neocortex started to grow out of proportion to the brain around the same time as bigger tribes and the creation of cave art.
Essentially, the bigger the social group, and the more fun they had, meant their brains developed quicker and they were generally more intelligent. The primary function of the bigger brain in the Palaeolithic was primarily to allow us to hold more than one conversation at a time. It would also have allowed people to develop religion and think about where they came from.
This was proved once more with an experiment with primates, where they observed that the bigger ‘more playful’ social groups were more intelligent. The brain is the most expensive organ to run, so whatever developments were made must be for a reason. Therefore, being social must be hard-wired in our DNA because that’s simply human nature.
We have been living alongside each other in tribes for hundreds of thousands of years. So I guess its hardly surprising that we are inherently social creatures. But it is fascinating to think having fun in other peoples company is essentially what helped us create a brain which differentiates us from every other animal on the planet.
Anyway, I hope you found this somewhat interesting. If you do want to read up more on this stuff, I can point you in the right direction. If you are desperate to know my references I can send you them ha!
But there you go, if you are feeling lonely, I don’t blame you, weren’t not meant to be alone!