New Study on Gorillas Could Help Understand the Origins of Human Social Evolution

Gorillas that live in 'complex societies' have been discovered to lead social lives, in tune with human habits.

New Study on Gorillas Could Help Understand the Origins of Human Social Evolution
Young gorillas take a break from feeding to socialize Wildlife Conservation Society

Gorillas have a far more complex social structure than we previously knew.

From close lifetime bonds to distant relatives and groups with societal tiers, a new study has recently discovered our human social habits may be quite closely aligned with that of gorillas.

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A research team of scientists from the University of Cambridge studied gorillas in the Republic of Congo over a period of six years, monitoring their lifestyles and habits closely in order to gain a clearer understanding of their complex social systems. 

The study was published on Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. What they discovered was a fascinating resemblance to human social structures. 

Studying gorillas

What the study indeed found was that human social systems didn't evolve separately but that their origins lie in the common ancestor between human and gorillas.

It wasn't an easy feat, gathering societal information on western lowland gorillas, typically found in the Republic of Congo's Mbeli Bai clearing.

A fully grown western lowland male gorilla, or silverback, can weigh up for 500 pounds (the weight of three average-sized men combined), making the task a precarious one.

New Study on Gorillas Could Help Understand the Origins of Human Social Evolution
Silverback males Dwayne and Sangha, the dominant males of two different western gorilla groups feed peacefully together at Mbeli Bai forest clearing. Source: Wildlife Conservation Society via EurekAlert.org

On top of that, gorillas can be very territorial.

"Gorillas spend most of their time in dense forests, and it can take years for them to habituate to humans," said the lead author of the study Dr. Robin Morrison. "Research teams set up monitoring platforms by clearings and record the lives of gorillas from dawn to dusk for many years," he continued. 

Societal norms of groups of gorillas

Typically, gorilla bands include a dominant male, several females and their offspring. Young bachelor gorillas can sometimes band together to create one group. 

What the team, led by Morrison, discovered was that there are more layers to gorillas' societal norms than was previously known. 

The frequency and the length of time between interactions or associations were studied using statistical algorithms. In doing so, the team found out another circle of extended non-immediate family, of around 13 gorillas, as well as an even wider circle of 39 non-related gorillas, or what we might call a group of friends, that spent time together. 

New Study on Gorillas Could Help Understand the Origins of Human Social Evolution
Three western gorilla groups mingle peacefully as they feed at the Mbeli Bai clearing in the Nouabale-Ndoki Park, Republic of Congo. Source: Wildlife Conservation Society via EurekAlert.org

The team also speculate that gorillas may group together over special occasions such as during the fruit season, not dissimilar to human events that converge over seasonal produce festivities. 

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Morrison pointed out, "Western gorillas often move more kilometers a day to feed from a diverse range of plants that rarely and unpredictably produce fruit. This food is easier to find if they collaborate when foraging."

What the study has shown is that our human social systems evolved much earlier than was previously known and may point towards the beginning of human social behavior.

"While primate societies vary a lot between species, we can now see an underlying structure in gorillas that was likely present before our species diverged, one that fits surprisingly well as a model for human social evolution," said Morrison.

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