Theoretical and methodological approaches to ecological changes, social behaviour and human intergroup tolerance 300,000 to 30,0000bp

Penny Spikins, Calvin Dytham, Jennifer French, Seren John Wood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Archaeological evidence suggests that important shifts were taking place in the character of human social behaviours 300,000 to 30,000 years ago. New artefact types appear and are disseminated with greater frequency. Transfers of both raw materials and finished artefacts take place over increasing distances, implying larger scales of regional mobility and more frequent and friendlier interactions between different communities. While these changes occur during a period of increasing environmental variability, the relationship between ecological changes and transformations in social behaviours is elusive. Here, we explore a possible theoretical approach and methodology for understanding how ecological contexts can influence selection pressures acting on intergroup social behaviours. We focus on the relative advantages and disadvantages of intergroup tolerance in different ecological contexts using agent-based modelling (ABM). We assess the relative costs and benefits of different 'tolerance' levels in between-group interactions on survival and resource exploitation in different environments. The results enable us to infer a potential relationship between ecological changes and proposed changes in between-group behavioural dynamics. We conclude that increasingly harsh environments may have driven changes in hormonal and emotional responses in humans leading to increasing intergroup tolerance, i.e. transformations in social behaviour associated with ‘self-domestication’. We argue that changes in intergroup tolerance is a more parsimonious explanation for the emergence of what has been seen as ‘modern human behaviour’ than changes in hard aspects of cognition or other factors such as cognitive adaptability or population size.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Archaeological Method and Theory
Publication statusPublished - 3 Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

© The Author(s) 2021

Cite this