By Megan Connolly
Up until about 11,000 years ago, most of the world lived in bands of a few dozen members. A large, extended family. Everyone knew everyone. Strangers were rarely encountered. When they were, they were usually avoided. And that was that.
These days, it’s hardly uncommon for a person to live in a city of more than a million people. In fact, it’s the norm. In 1800, only 3% of the world’s population was urban. By 2030, 70% of the world will call a city their home. These are people who, like so many before, have come to accept that the collective efforts and fruits of urban centers may promise more wealth and opportunity than the village they are leaving behind.
Few things strike us as more telling about our general adaptability as a species than our ability to shift from our places of origin to our adopted homes. For millions of years, we more or less stayed together. Our group was our kin. And now, we move. Relentlessly. Our little tribe is no longer defined by blood lines, but instead by street, workplace, school, or place of worship. We are bound to others – strangers – by values, ideas and norms. Nothing more. And yet, in a quickly moving world, these identities become an anchor. You can take the girl out of the village, but you’ll never take the village out of the girl.
We are drawn to the larger cities for the opportunities they can offer. Yet in seas of faceless millions, we seem to still be driven to create much smaller bands of contacts. Our new friends, our neighbors, our coworkers. The people we see often enough to make the world feel knowable. Without these relationships, we can feel adrift. A handful of people to call on feels like home. Nine million strangers to bump into on the subway does not. This is because the brain still perceives the world through the lens it evolved over millions of years of human experience – not the past hundred years of progress.
And so back to the story of us, way before we started to believe that larger groups meant better living. Customs and cultures evolve for a specific reason. They help a group live a better life. Practices that don’t get discarded. If a practice has remained with humanity over the eons, it seems reasonable to pay attention to the wisdom it offers. Customs that survive are usually the ones that work.
The best way to try and understand the way we lived thousands of years ago is to study the way groups of people who have had little contact with the modern world live now. In the earth, bones stand the test of time. Social customs do not. So anthropologists need to seek out groups of people who still live traditionally as a fleeting illustration of how things once were for all of us.
As it goes, traditional groups of humans that have been studied by anthropologists do not raise children in the modern, nuclear fashion, where parents form an isolated niche that is entirely self-sufficient. On the contrary, in traditional cultures, parenthood is a community effort. Mothers are helped by others, from birth onwards.
Over millions of years, human groups learned that parenting worked better when it was cooperative. Unique to other primates, early human parenting made use of the assistance of other caregivers in the raising of children. When mothers allowed others to help out, they were freed up to find more resources for their families. Everyone benefited.
…the human infant’s need to connect with its different caretakers has hard-wired us as a species to be aware of the emotions of others…
It has been argued that cooperative breeding, over millennia, gave human offspring a long enough chance at survival to grow large, problem-solving brains. And that the human infant’s need to connect with its different caretakers has hard-wired us as a species to be aware of the emotions of others (a trait that has led to generosity, empathy and the sharing of resources for the betterment of all). It has been argued it is the very reason for humanity’s evolutionary success.