Dyble, M., Thompson, J., Page, A.E., Chaudhary, N., Salali, G.D., Vinicius, L., Mace, R., Migliano, A.B. (2016) Networks of food sharing reveal the functional significance of multilevel sociality in two hunter-gatherer groups. Current Biology, 26 (15): 2017-2021.
Like many other mammalian and primate societies, humans are said to live in multilevel social groups, with individuals situated in a series of hierarchically structured sub-groups. Although this multilevel social organization has been described among contemporary hunter-gatherers, questions remain as to the benefits that individuals derive from living in such groups. Here, we show that food sharing among two populations of contemporary hunter-gatherers—the Palanan Agta (Philippines) and Mbendjele BaYaka (Republic of Congo)—reveals similar multilevel social structures, with individuals situated in households, within sharing clusters of 3–4 households, within the wider residential camps, which vary in size. We suggest that these groupings serve to facilitate inter-sexual provisioning, kin provisioning, and risk reduction reciprocity, three levels of cooperation argued to be fundamental in human societies. Humans have a suite of derived life history characteristics including a long childhood and short inter-birth intervals that make offspring energetically demanding and have moved to a dietary niche that often involves the exploitation of difficult to acquire foods with highly variable return rates. This means that human foragers face both day-to-day and more long-term energetic deficits that conspire to make humans energetically interdependent. We suggest that a multilevel social organization allows individuals access to both the food sharing partners required to buffer themselves against energetic shortfalls and the cooperative partners required for skill-based tasks such as cooperative foraging.