Knowledge-Sharing Networks in Hunter-Gatherers and the Evolution of Cumulative Culture

Gul Deniz Salali*, Nikhil Chaudhary, James Thompson, Olwen Megan Grace, Xander M. van der Burgt, Mark Dyble, Abigail E. Page, Daniel Smith, Jerome Lewis, Ruth Mace, Lucio Vinicius, Andrea Bamberg Migliano

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

50 Citations (Scopus)
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Humans possess the unique ability for cumulative culture [1, 2]. It has been argued that hunter-gatherer's complex social structure [3–9] has facilitated the evolution of cumulative culture by allowing information exchange among large pools of individuals [10–13]. However, empirical evidence for the interaction between social structure and cultural transmission is scant [14]. Here we examine the reported co-occurrence of plant uses between individuals in dyads (which we define as their “shared knowledge” of plant uses) in BaYaka Pygmies from Congo. We studied reported uses of 33 plants of 219 individuals from four camps. We show that (1) plant uses by BaYaka fall into three main domains: medicinal, foraging, and social norms/beliefs; (2) most medicinal plants have known bioactive properties, and some are positively associated with children's BMI, suggesting that their use is adaptive; (3) knowledge of medicinal plants is mainly shared between spouses and biological and affinal kin; and (4) knowledge of plant uses associated with foraging and social norms is shared more widely among campmates, regardless of relatedness, and is important for camp-wide activities that require cooperation. Our results show the interdependence between social structure and knowledge sharing. We propose that long-term pair bonds, affinal kin recognition, exogamy, and multi-locality create ties between unrelated families, facilitating the transmission of medicinal knowledge and its fitness implications. Additionally, multi-family camps with low inter-relatedness between camp members provide a framework for the exchange of functional information related to cooperative activities beyond the family unit, such as foraging and regulation of social life.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2516-2521
Number of pages6
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number18
Early online date8 Sept 2016
Publication statusPublished - 26 Sept 2016


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