COLLEGE STATION, February 19, 2002 - It's little more than a dinner choice for most people, but meat - and the cooperation involved in getting it - may be the foundation for modern-day social interactions says a Texas A&M University anthropologist.
Michael Alvard, a socio-cultural anthropologist who uses evolutionary theory to learn about human behavior, says the hunting and scavenging for meat, by humans, that developed perhaps as early as two million years ago, may have been a trigger for human mental abilities to evolve.
"Many important aspects of human nature revolve around solving problems related to the cooperative acquisition, defense and distribution of hunted resources," Alvard says.
The mental skills required for cooperative hunting developed as responses to associated problems as well as to the need for accounting for distribution and consumption, he adds.
In other words, the development of big game hunting, forced our ancestors to refine concepts such as cooperation, cheating, and accounting for who got what - all concepts that would be unknown to the solitary scavenger.
Whether or not it was the original reason for the evolution of sociality, Alvard says that cooperative hunting and meat sharing opened a niche that was unavailable to the solitary forager.
Meat was of high value because it was rare, difficult and dangerous to obtain, existed only in short-term quantities and often required cooperation to obtain it, Alvard notes.
Early humans, he explains, soon learned that hunting large game by themselves was unsuccessful, so they banded together to achieve their goals. In this sense, the concept of cooperation was being learned and developed by these people.
Not only were early social concepts being developed during the hunt, but social complexity reached new levels after the hunt was over.
"Distribution was the second issue these people had to tackle," Alvard says. "Those involved in the hunt had to obtain a satisfactory payoff from the carcass to ensure cooperation would continue in the long term."
In accounting for distribution of the meat and consumption of it, these people had to identify the concept of cheating and find ways to make sure it couldn't take place, he says.
Alvard, who is researching similar cooperative patterns in Indonesian whale hunters, says these early cooperative efforts resembled mutualism - a form of cooperation where the payoffs for working together are immediate and are far greater than for working alone.
In his research with the whale hunters, he has analyzed their behavior against several types of game theory models - models that attempt to explain how organisms make decisions when these decisions depend on what others do. He has drawn similarities in their cooperative interactions and those of early big game hunters.
The above post is reprinted from materials provided by Texas A&M University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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