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Durham University

Department of Anthropology


Publication details for Dr Sharon Kessler

Kessler, Sharon E., Bonnell, Tyler R., Setchell, Joanna M. & Chapman, Colin A. (2018). Social Structure Facilitated the Evolution of Care-giving as a Strategy for Disease Control in the Human Lineage. Scientific Reports 8(1): 13997.

Author(s) from Durham


Humans are the only species to have evolved cooperative care-giving as a strategy for disease control. A synthesis of evidence from the fossil record, paleogenomics, human ecology, and disease transmission models, suggests that care-giving for the diseased evolved as part of the unique suite of cognitive and socio-cultural specializations that are attributed to the genus Homo. Here we demonstrate that the evolution of hominin social structure enabled the evolution of care-giving for the diseased. Using agent-based modeling, we simulate the evolution of care-giving in hominin networks derived from a basal primate social system and the three leading hypotheses of ancestral human social organization, each of which would have had to deal with the elevated disease spread associated with care-giving. We show that (1) care-giving is an evolutionarily stable strategy in kin-based cooperatively breeding groups, (2) care-giving can become established in small, low density groups, similar to communities that existed before the increases in community size and density that are associated with the advent of agriculture in the Neolithic, and (3) once established, care-giving became a successful method of disease control across social systems, even as community sizes and densities increased. We conclude that care-giving enabled hominins to suppress disease spread as social complexity, and thus socially-transmitted disease risk, increased.