“A Paleolithic Reciprocation Crisis: Symbols, Signals, and Norms”

K. Sterelny. 2014. Biological Theory, vol. 9, pp 65-77.
Within paleoanthropology, the origin of behavioral modernity is a famous problem. Very large-brained hominins have lived for around half a million years, yet social lives resembling those known from the ethnographic record appeared perhaps 100,000 years ago. Why did it take 400,000 years for humans to start acting like humans? In this article, I argue that part of the solution is a transition in the economic foundations of cooperation from a relatively undemanding form, to one that imposed much more stress on human motivational and cognitive mechanisms. The rich normative, ceremonial, and ideological lives of humans are a response to this economic revolution in forager lives; from one depending on immediate return mutualism to one depending on delayed and third-party reciprocation.


At the core of Ellis’ theory of anthropogenic ecological change is the argument that sociocultural processes are the ultimate causes of human transformation of the biosphere. Sociocultural niche construction is the primary means through which humans entrain ecological systems.  Ellis sees a few characteristics of our species as crucial to explaining how humans have become such a factor in planetary systems. Of particular importance is our ultrasociality, or ability to communicate information (however manifested) coupled with a capability to create complex and cooperative non-kin social relationships. Not only does ultrasociality enable the kind of complex and dense habitation that has sometimes occurred in our history, but it is arguably the basis for the cooptation and manipulation of labor.  If we accept that humans are ultrasocial as described, one important question is where does ultrasociality come from, and what might that say about the sociocultural niche more broadly?

One place to start answering this question is in our collective past. Origins research can be useful, in that it provides the opportunity to consider the ways in which our species is distinct, or to examine those features that would accommodate the eventual planetary impacts that we can see today.

In this article, Kim Sterelny tackles one of the more vexing questions regarding human origins: how did we become “behaviorally modern”? Under what conditions did humans engage in reciprocity, cooperative activities, and  social alliance building? Furthermore, when did we begin to be bound and enabled by social rules? Somewhat contradictorily, there is evidence for individuals effectively like modern populations in terms of their anatomy by perhaps 500 thousand years ago (kya). However, the evidence for behavioral modernity, such as “symbolic” objects, funeral rites, and complex economic practices, emerges much later, between 120-60 kya or so. By 50 kya behaviorally modern humans had migrated out of Africa and were in the process of global colonization. One possible explanation for the emergence of modern human behavior is that there had to have been a genetic change, perhaps in the ability to produce language, that would have enabled the kinds of social and economic innovations we see in the last 100 ky.  Sterelny challenges this perspective, suggesting that if such a genetic change were to occur, we should see evidence amplified through time.  Instead, the record of more complex, ultrasocial behaviors is spotty, occurring only in certain times and locations.  While one might chalk this up to a lack of data (it was a long time ago), there are alternatives.

Sterelny counters the genetic forcing model with a social one, arguing that increased social interactions led to “a new ideological life of norms and conventions mediated by the use of material symbols” (p. 5). New cooperative behaviors were the consequence of deepening encounters with kin and non-kin (dependent on a rise in population, or at least a perceived increase in demographics), which could have increased chances for interpersonal conflicts. Perhaps, too, larger group size would be advantageous, as information would be preserved (in terms of fidelity and through time) and extended across multiple individuals. Sterelny argues that there were, in fact, several attendant shifts.  An important one regards changes in interpersonal relationships and planning horizons. While most great apes cooperate, they do so “in the now,” with little investment in future gains (what Sterelny refers to as immediate return economies). In contrast, behaviorally modern humans engage in reciprocal exchange, often with long intervals between exchanges of food, materials, or information (delayed return economy). They also do so with non-kin, although social networks often include fictive kin. For an alternative reading on immediate and delayed return economies see Woodburn (1982).  Sterelny suggests that the transition towards delayed return economies would have allowed for increased divisions of labor as well as new kinds of seasonal gatherings and dispersals, effectively extending cooperative persons in time and space. Groups could become more specialized, and reliant on each other for food exchange. While such fission and fusion would have enabled greater resource flexibility, it would also put strain on internal relations of reciprocity and external social boundaries. So, too, Sterelny argues, these new social lives would have necessitated new social rules regarding debt, responsibilities, and obligations. New practices such as rituals, including those attending the dead, would provide a powerful context for generating kin or broader social ties while at the same time recreating the social rules of relatedness and debt.  So too material symbols were a manifestation of these new norms, and facilitated complex transactions either in terms of trade or in ceremony. In either case, Sterelny argues, material symbols reduced social stress.

There is much to think about here. Evaluating this hypothesis is difficult, as Sterelny freely admits, in part because of a lack of evidence for significant population increases in the time period of interest.  Indeed, origins research is tricky business.  The archaeological and paleontological record of deep time is often thin, heavily fragmented, and preserved in only select places. The generally low density of finds makes broad inferences difficult, and subject to equifinality (wherein multiple distinct processes could plausibly result in the same record). We are also reliant on analogy with living populations, which is not without significant problems. There remain questions as to whether immediate return or delayed return systems would characterize our ancestors, or if they are more a product of recent world systems. So, too, one gets the sense that competition and violence were ever present threats in Sterelny’s view of our deep past, despite a lack of evidence. One result of these factors is  an often sanitized view of cultural evolution. New lines of evidence often have the effect of muddying once clear waters. For example, up until 2 weeks ago it was generally understood that humans had interbred with Neanderthals after 50,000 years ago in Eurasia. However, a recent ancient DNA study demonstrated the presence of modern human DNA in a 100,000 year old Neanderthal genome, indicative of much earlier interchanges (Kuhlwilm, et al. 2016). Other genetic studies have also discovered previously unknown human lineages, suggesting that the past 400,000 years have been a lot more messier and complicated than we thought.

Certainly such studies remind us to be cautious about locating causality in the deep past that is fragmented. However, these same studies also provide a sense that Sterelny and others are on to something important. Humans have the unique capability of extending relationships, often in the form of obligations, across time and space. These same obligations can lead to intensification, as pressure is put on others to fulfill debts while at the same time managing local subsistence pursuits. While we certainly can extend relations to other humans, the appearance of modern human DNA in Neanderthals, as well as vice-versa, would indicate that these sorts of interactions may have been extended beyond ourselves (although how ancient behaviorally modern humans viewed their cousins is a matter of mostly speculation at this point). But it does not stop there. A reading of numerous works on non-western viewpoints highlights how humans can extend both personhood, kin ties, and reciprocal obligations to other species and even places (Ingold 2000; McNiven 2013), and they do so in ways that are not necessarily exploitative or competitive. The point is that although we are ultrasocial today, we should be cautious about how we envision that sociality playing out as a historical process.


Ingold, Tim (2000) The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling & skill. Routledge, New York.
Kuhlwilm, Martin, Ilan Gronau, Melissa J. Hubisz, Cesare de Filippo, Javier Prado-Martinez, Martin Kircher, Qiaomei Fu, Hernán A. Burbano, Carles Lalueza-Fox, Marco de la Rasilla, Antonio Rosas, Pavao Rudan, Dejana Brajkovic, Željko Kucan, Ivan Gušic, Tomas Marques-Bonet, Aida M. Andrés, Bence Viola, Svante Pääbo, Matthias Meyer, Adam Siepel and Sergi Castellano. (2016) Ancient gene flow from early modern humans into Eastern Neanderthals. Nature advance online publication.
McNiven, Ian J. (2013) Ritualized Middening Practices. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 20(4):552-587. DOI: 10.1007/s10816-012-9130-y
Woodburn, James (1982) Egalitarian Societies. Man 17(3):431–451.

6 thoughts on ““A Paleolithic Reciprocation Crisis: Symbols, Signals, and Norms”

  1. Erle- Great question, and one that I’m not anywhere near qualified to answer. That said, back in the early 2000s there was a hypothesis floating around that the explosion of diversity one sees during the Middle Stone Age (100-70kya) was due in part to climatic forcing that led to many groups being pushed into the same landscape, effectively requiring the sorts of social rules and rituals that allow for social diversity and also allow us to manage it. More recent genetic modeling does not find support for such a bottleneck, nor does the archaeological record apparently support it. Fun idea though. What I find interesting about Sterelny’s approach is that you don’t necessarily need a “first,” the occasional flare up of cooperation and social alliances throughout deep history would suggest that “humans” have had the capabilities of ultrasociality for sometime, without it necessarily generating runaway change. That is, its not a one-way street once these sorts of intensive delayed return systems get started. If we fast forward to the past 10,000 years we do find instances where human groups effectively embrace immediate return economies as a social and political strategy (I’m thinking, for a contemporary example, of the Hadza here).

    • When you say it is not a one-way street, do you mean that having taken steps toward a delayed return system a group might be able to back off, and return to an immediate return system?

      • Hypothetically, yes, although the length of time it might take is certainly up for debate (i.e. overnight, a generation, a millennium). Part of the difficulty may be terminology. Sterelny invokes immediate and delayed return systems in a way that is slightly different from traditional anthropological usage. Traditionally, immediate return economies can still have social storage (i.e. extended kin and non-kin ties), although some of the most staunchly egalitarian communities may not. The more immediate return groups such as the Hadza and the Basarwa were held up as examples of what early societies may have been like. In the 1980s-1990s a massive battle raged over whether contemporary hunter-gatherer lifeways were representative of some ur-humanity or were in part the product of interactions with more powerful societies (i.e. the state). Things have settled down a bit, with some researchers recognizing that of course modern hunter-gatherers are not evolutionary holdovers, but we can’t necessarily blame modern society for what some have called an anti-society(Tim Ingold). Those subscribing to selectionist perspectives (whether darwinian or not) tend to be in this camp. Others have looked into the archaeological past, and found examples of what appear to be switches between delayed and immediate return economies, with the immediate return folks being the ones who avoid being incorporated into extensive indebtedness structures. I know a number of folks have been starting to plumb anarchy theory to explain these sorts of transformations, but I’m not well read enough on the subject yet.

  2. I’m struck by the importance of the ability to imagine the future in this account–I gather that’s key to a delayed response exchange system, anyway. Is there a theory of how human beings came to the capacity to conceive of the future? (I assume that this is not found in animals–or are caching (sp?) behaviors taken to show that animals do have a concept of the future?

    I’m trying to put this question together with what Pinker’s ideas about the cognitive niche. Does the cognitive (hence the sociocultural) niche have a temporal dimension? That is a distinct question from whether or not the ability to imagine the future is required for humans to be able to engage in sociocultural niche construction. Or, is the ability to imagine the future an example of the kind of extension of cognitive capacities through metaphor Pinker says explains why human beings can do more with their minds than just survive.

    In any event, this capacity to imagine the future is obviously a source of hope, if an uncertain one: by imagining bad futures we can at least try to avoid them.

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