Hunter-gatherers exhibit many of the “friending” habits familiar to Facebook users, suggesting that the patterns for social networking were set early in the history of our species. At least that's the conclusion from a group of researchers who mapped the connections among members of the Hadza ethnic group in Tanzania's Lake Eyasi region. The results were published in this week's issue of the journal Nature. “The astonishing thing is that ancient human social networks so very much resemble what we see today,” senior author Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist at Harvard Medical School, said in a university news release. Researchers from Harvard, the University of California at San Diego and Cambridge University worked together to document the Hadza's social networks. “From the time we were around campfires and had words floating through the air, to today when we have digital packets floating through the ether, we've made networks of basically the same kind,” Christakis said.
Another co-author of the study, UCSD's James Fowler, said the results suggest that the structure of today's social networks go back to a time before the invention of agriculture, tens of thousands of years ago. For decades, social scientists have puzzled over the origins of cooperative and altruistic behavior that benefits the group at the expense of the individual. That seems to run counter to a basic “tooth and claw” view of evolution, in which each individual fights for survival, or at least the survival of its gene pool. One of the leading hypotheses is that a system to reward cooperation and punish non-cooperators (“free riders”) grew out of a sense of genetic kinship between related individuals. But how far back did such a system arise?