Betrayals of trust helped the rapid spread of human species around the world

November 24, 2015
Preserved spear thrower hook dated to about 12,500 years ago from the site of La Madeleine, in France. Credit: Wikimedia commons.

New research by an archaeologist at the University of York suggests that betrayals of trust were the missing link in understanding the rapid spread of our own species around the world.

Dr Penny Spikins, of the University's Department of Archaeology, says that the speed and character of human dispersals changed significantly around 100,000 years ago.

Before then, movement of archaic humans were slow and largely governed by environmental events due to population increases or . Afterwards populations spread with remarkable speed and across major environmental barriers.

But Dr Spikins, a senior lecturer in the Archaeology of Human Origins, relates this change to changes in human emotional relationships. In research published in Open Quaternary, she says that neither population increase nor ecological changes provide an adequate explanation for patterns of human movement into new regions which began around 100,000 years ago.

She suggests that as commitments to others became more essential to survival, and human groups ever more motivated to identify and punish those who cheat, the 'dark' side of human nature also developed. Moral disputes motivated by broken trust and a sense of betrayal became more frequent and motivated early humans to put distance between them and their rivals.

According to Dr Spikins, the emotional bonds which held populations together in crisis had a darker side in heartfelt reactions to betrayal which we still feel today. Larger social networks made it easier to find distant allies with whom to start new colonies, and more efficient hunting technology meant that anyone with a grudge was a danger but it was human emotions which provided the force of repulsion from existing occupied areas which we do not see in other animals.

71,000 year old microblades from Pinnacle Point, South Africa. Credit: Simen Oestmo

Early species of hominin were limited in distribution to specific environments such as grasslands and open woodland. The expansion of Homo erectus out of Africa into Asia around 1.6 million years ago appears to have been caused by the need to find more large scale grasslands. By contrast, Neanderthals occupied cold and arid parts of Europe. All archaic species adapted slowly to new opportunities for settlement and were often deterred by environmental and climatic barriers.

After 100,000 years ago, however, dispersal into distant, risky and inhospitable areas became relatively more common compared with movements into already occupied regions. Most notably, the spread of modern populations was not inhibited by biogeographical barriers. Populations moved into cold regions of Northern Europe, crossed significant deltas such as the Indus and the Ganges, deserts, tundra and jungle environment and even made significant sea crossings to reach Australia and the Pacific islands.

Dr Spikins argues that betrayals of trust resulting from moral disputes were a significant reason for such risky dispersals into apparently unwelcoming environments with a desire to avoid physical harm from disgruntled former friends and allies being a key motivation. Offenders and any allies within their social network would feel driven to get out of harm's way.

Dispersal pattern of humans after 100,000bp

She says: "Active colonisations of and through hazardous terrain are difficult to explain through immediate pragmatic choices. But they become easier to explain through the rise of the strong motivations to harm others even at one's own expense which widespread emotional commitments bring.

"Moral conflicts provoke substantial mobility—the furious ex ally, mate or whole group, with a poisoned spear or projectile intent on seeking revenge or justice, are a strong motivation to get away, and to take almost any risk to do so.

"While we view the global dispersal of our species as a symbol of our success, part of the motivations for such movements reflect a darker, though no less 'collaborative', side to ."

Explore further: Neanderthals had feelings too, say researchers

More information: 'The geography of trust and betrayal: moral disputes and Late Pleistocene dispersal' Open Quaternary, doi.org/10.5334/oq.ai

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8 comments

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SciTechdude
2 / 5 (3) Nov 24, 2015
Every human living somewhere was forced there was somewhere else. You have but to read history. Conquest, slavery, escape into the wilds. It happens over and over again in every book of literature, including the Bible.
nilbud
1.8 / 5 (5) Nov 24, 2015
Uterine babble.
katesisco
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 25, 2015
Well, it appears that the threat from 'above' whatever it was, was diminished or eliminated and THAT is what allowed human to indulge their differences. Remember the famous experiment in which campers were divided into two groups and the rivalry got so far out of hand the experimenters were forced to create a 'new' threat--another group, that forced the warring parties to collaborate!!
A_Paradox
2 / 5 (3) Nov 29, 2015
I find this hypothesis to be a bit gratuitous and overly complex [or else not complex enough! :-) read on!]

I mean to say, let's go back and ask: "What big thing happened to human beings about 100K years ago?
Answer: the advent of versatile grammar, that's what!

Our ancestors started walking upright and carrying tools around way more that 2 million years ago. They started using fire about 2 million years ago [or thereabouts, OK] and probably had ability to use words and very simple sentences since at least a million years ago [whatever]. But the utterly humongous change that evoked truly human capabilities was - surely! - the advent of versatile grammar. Versatile grammar allowed our ancestors to *tell stories* for the first time, in other words to transmit complex and abstract descriptions of the world from person to person, family to family, tribe to tribe, and GENERATION TO GENERATION!

Why does Dr Penny Spikins ignore this?
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (2) Nov 30, 2015
Spikins theory could be tested by studying today's native stone age tribes. They seem to be much more stationary than her theory predicts. E.g. her drive force takes humans from North to South America in 3 000 years, yet the Brazilian rain forest tribes have remained in South America for nearly 6 000 years. It doesn't look good for her theory.

@SciTechdude: That religious text mass is a modern conglomerate*, half hasn't been tested yet - no data, the other half is historically and archaeologically wrong.

*) The source texts derives from ~ 2400 years ago at the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the modern text was finalized ~ 1000 years later.
djusko
1 / 5 (3) Nov 30, 2015
She says: "Active colonisations of and through hazardous terrain are difficult to explain through immediate pragmatic choices.
How about this? Each color was born in a different clement land mass at the same time.
djusko
1 / 5 (2) Nov 30, 2015
"climate" spelling
OdinsAcolyte
not rated yet Dec 01, 2015
How about just wondering what is out there?
It has always been a motivator for me.

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