Liv­ing in soci­ety with oth­ers has advan­tages for sur­vival such as pro­tec­tion, access to food, and care for infants and mothers.

Our social mind

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Maropeng’s exhib­it on how humans devel­oped societies

Pri­mates are social crea­tures and spend a great deal of time man­ag­ing rela­tion­ships and alliances. Most pri­mates move, feed and sleep in groups.

The evo­lu­tion of the brain and the devel­op­ment of lan­guage con­tributed to the devel­op­ment of more com­plex social groups. In pri­mates, group size is relat­ed to the rel­a­tive vol­ume of a part of the brain called the neocortex.

Anthro­pol­o­gists esti­mate that pre­his­toric Homo sapi­ens pop­u­la­tions had a group size of about 100 indi­vid­u­als, based in part on mea­sure­ments of the neo­cor­tex. This is sim­i­lar to group sizes found in some hunter-gath­er­er soci­eties. Groups of sim­i­lar sizes are also found in oth­er con­tem­po­rary and his­tor­i­cal societies.

Ear­li­er hominids with a rel­a­tive­ly small cra­nial neo­cor­tex would have per­haps lived in small­er social groups.

Liv­ing in groups has disadvantages …

Liv­ing in groups has led to the growth and devel­op­ment of a con­sumer soci­ety and urban­i­sa­tion in most parts of the world. There are now cities with tens of mil­lions of peo­ple liv­ing in them. As our num­bers grow, we are deplet­ing habi­tats and plac­ing pres­sure on our ener­gy, food and water resources.

Could our high­ly devel­oped abil­i­ties to live in large groups turn out to be our ulti­mate undo­ing as a species?

Or could these same abil­i­ties help us to plan togeth­er and take action to ensure the sus­tain­abil­i­ty of the Earth’s resources and our future as a species?

… and Advantages

Group liv­ing pro­vides defence against preda­tors – a group can be more vig­i­lant and chal­leng­ing than individuals.

Groups can also be more effi­cient than indi­vid­u­als at dis­cov­er­ing and defend­ing sources of food.

Devel­op­ment of more com­plex society

By liv­ing in a com­mu­ni­ty, hominids would have depend­ed on oth­er mem­bers of their group for assis­tance. This reliance would have helped com­plex rela­tion­ships grow.

Giv­en the com­plex­i­ty of tool assem­blages and the spe­cial­ist skills that could be devel­oped in for­ag­ing, scav­eng­ing, hunt­ing and basic agri­cul­tur­al activ­i­ties, some mem­bers of a com­mu­ni­ty may have become experts at cer­tain activ­i­ties. This may have led to the devel­op­ment of more com­plex pow­er struc­tures with­in communities.

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Com­mu­ni­ties would have aid­ed our survival

Many ani­mals have struc­tured groups where labour is divid­ed. Chim­panzees share the care of off­spring with relat­ed females, while only males hunt. This lifestyle could per­haps have been true for hominids.

But there is lit­tle evi­dence in the ear­ly archae­o­log­i­cal record for organ­ised soci­eties. It is only with mate­r­i­al from pre­his­toric set­tle­ments, such as those at Mapun­gub­we in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, about 1,000 years ago, that researchers can iden­ti­fy com­plex social organisation.

Liv­ing with­in a com­mu­ni­ty cre­ates cul­tur­al cap­i­tal, or the accu­mu­la­tion of social knowl­edge over time. Fol­low­ing the devel­op­ment of lan­guage and the abil­i­ty for com­plex plan­ning, hominids would have been able to dis­cuss and refine strate­gies for sur­vival, and to teach their young about the threats and oppor­tu­ni­ties of their world. While this may have ini­tial­ly had prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tions, with time and the har­ness­ing of fire, more com­plex social impli­ca­tions prob­a­bly developed.

With­in a com­mu­ni­ty, the fire­side may have pro­vid­ed the place to share food and expe­ri­ences, and per­haps aid­ed the devel­op­ment of abstract thought. The fire­side could have sparked the emer­gence of cul­ture, includ­ing song, dance, role play, reli­gion and mythology.


The neo­cor­tex, some­times just called the cor­tex, is the out­er­most, con­vo­lut­ed lay­er of the brain, and is evo­lu­tion­ar­i­ly the most advanced area of this organ. It is here that con­scious thought, spa­tial rea­son­ing, sen­so­ry per­cep­tion and high-lev­el infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing occurs.

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