Social Networks of Hunter-Gatherers Reveal the Importance of a Few Close Friends

In an unusual study, researchers placed tracking devices on people living in hunter-gatherer tribes and found their social networks are similar to those in modern societies.

People the world over, from high tech executives to hunter-gatherers, have very similar social networks, according to new research that reveals the importance of maintaining bonds with family, as well as three to five close friends.

The results, published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, were drawn by studying the Philippines-based Agta and Congo-dwelling BaYaka hunter-gatherers. Lead author Andrea Migliano, an evolutionary anthropologist at University College London, explained that she and her team chose to focus on hunter-gatherers because they represent the closest examples of human lifestyles and social organizations from the past.

"They have been little influenced by technology, they have very old traditions, but the most important thing for us is that they have to deal in their day-to-day life with problems that are similar to the ones our ancestor hunter-gatherers had to cope with, such as unpredictable resources," Migliano told Seeker.

"So they have developed specific social adaptations that are central to this kind of lifestyle: they are mobile, highly cooperative - as they do not store food and resources are unpredictable they need to share everything - highly egalitarian, and all is equally shared."

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The researchers gave each hunter-gatherer study participant a "mote device," which they wore like an activity tracker around one wrist. In this case, the gadgets tracked each wearer's social interactions.

Migliano explained that the device emits a radio signal every two minutes, which is recorded by every other such gadget around and within about ten feet. With this technology, the researchers were able to map a person's network of close social interactions.

The hunter-gatherers often communicated with family members, and had a lot of other occasional acquaintances. Especially central to their networks were close friends whom they often knew since childhood.

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"What was surprising in our study was that the number of very close friends - the ones people interact with as much as family and exchange information - was on average the same, three to five, in both Congo and the Philippines in all age groups," Migliano said. She added that this average number of very close friends is mirrored in Westernized societies.

Without computers, social media or even telephones, hunter-gatherers have social networks that are nearly identical to those of modern urban populations. The paths to those networks may be very different, but the end results are about the same.

The researchers have not mapped the social networks of other primates yet, but earlier research suggests that chimpanzees and other primates tend to form close alliances with relatives and do form friendships, but Migliano said they "have fewer opportunities to befriend unrelated individuals, and cooperation between unrelated individuals is much less frequent."

As a result, non-human primates have smaller social networks and a limited ability to learn innovations developed outside of their tight spheres.

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In Western societies, close friendships often form in school. For hunter-gatherers, such alliances usually are forged in "playgroups." Migliano said these "are like a school, where children are learning through play, imitating each other, and creating the foundations of their future social networks."

The take-home lesson from these and other studies is that investing in a few good friends from different families can make social networks more efficient.

"Based on that, it seems that the recipe for good social networking is to avoid two extremes: being too cosmopolitan - trying to know everybody and everywhere, but only superficially - or too provincial by not extending your links beyond family or local ties," Migliano said.

As for the hunter-gatherer study participants, they were not interested in keeping the mote devices. Instead, at the end of the research period, they and their family members received some coveted Thermoses and cookware.

Top photo: Child friendships from the BaYaka hunter-gatherer tribe. Credit: Timothy Allen/Getty Images