“Christmas parties” of the Upper Palaeolithic

I’ve previously discussed how one of the lesser known reasons forHomo sapienssuccess, particularly at higher latitudes, is our ability to divide a large group into several smaller groups to more efficiently gather resources from an area. However, an even lesser known fact is that these groups are themselves part of a large social structure which will also meet up periodically.

It’s a lot like a Christmas party in an office – once a year or so the entire organisation will gather and have a big brewhaha. All the different departments will come together for some fun and everyone goes home with that peculiar feeling of regret and merriment only found by attending office parties.

However, unlike the fission-fusion structure of a single tribe, what would the survival advantages of such a gathering be? Pooling resources once a year doesn’t really net you many benefits. Everyone chipping in for the party might make it cheaper for you to get drunk on one night but that won’t really contribute that much to your yearly net alcoholism.

If the party is an official dealy the management involved might offer excuses about how it develops social bonds and builds teams. Whilst it might be tempting to throw that out as part of the same middle-management thought-farts that gave us phrases like “blue sky thinking” there is actually some validity to this reasoning.

"Christmas parties" of the Upper Palaeolithic might have looked like this, only with less office and more mammoth

"There's actually a socially beneficial reason we're here....why are you all laughing?"

By developing and cementing the relationships between otherwise disparate groups one develops “insurance networks” on which you can call should something go wrong. Say your department really needs to show off a handout but the printer is on the fritz. Normally you might have to wait days for support, the project is doomed!

However, you made friends with a bloke in IT at the last Christmas party and you’re able to call in a favour so before you can say “have you tried turning it off and on again” bingo! He’s fixed the printer.

Now, replace “broken printer” with “famine,” “department” with “tribe,” “Christmas party” with “annual gathering of Aurignacian ethno-linguistc groups” and presto, you have a picture of the insurance networks crucial to group survival as an Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer.

In a harsh environment, such as Europe between ~45,000 and ~10,000 years ago, having reciprocal relationships with neighbouring groups would’ve been of the utmost importance. Being able to call upon your neighbours in times of subsistence crisis (in exchange for allowing them to call on you) would’ve been a fundamental part of prehistoric survival.


However, the timescale over which maintaining these insurance networks would pay off is rather large, in some cases taking whole generations before the situation is such a favour needs to be called in. It’s a lot of effort to remember all the various favours that you are owed and owe others and over the course of a few years what if you forget? The whole system might collapse.

Many modern hunter-gatherer tribes get around this issue by using various tokens to represent favours, the most famous such system being the hxaro exchange network, employed by the !Kung (Ju /’hoan) of Africa. They use almost any object to represent a favour and these objects (as well as the favours associated with them) can then be traded and inherited.

As well as being an ingenious work around the foibles of human memory the hxaro system also sets some exciting precedent: these tokens might be detectable in the archaeological record. Thus we can identify and study the insurance networks of the past, despite the fact that they would ordinarily leave next to no trace. The question then becomes, if they did use tokens to represent favours, what artefacts would be those tokens?

Gamble famously argued that these tokens might be the enigmatic “venus figurines.” The figurines are statuettes of women with highly emphasised…”proportions”…produced from ~35,000 years ago onwards. This argument centres around how they are very similar across the entire continent, suggesting they are conveying information – namely who owes who what – which forces them to be consistent.

Check out her information!

However some, including myself, are somewhat skeptical of these claims. For starters there’s the fact that these figurines may well be similar because they’re based on a similar source material. If Upper Palaeolithic individuals attempted to model a woman it is highly unlikely some will give them 8 arms, some will make them square. Women, for the most part, look similar so it makes sense that any art based off them will also have similarities.

Then there’s the issue that even if they are being deliberately similar then there’s little we can do to determine if that is to convey information. A lot of people might just like the style, or it might be images of some kind of goddess or some other ritual role. And then even if they were meant to convey information, what suggests it was about insurance networks?

Might it just be a wedding present or some other symbol of good luck. Many modern hunter-gatherer cultures, after all, actively dissuade people from giving things with the hope of recieving something later on. On top of that there the fact the hxaro system includes a seemingly random set of objects, with everything from beads to ostrich eggs being used to represent favours. Such randomness would make a similar system undetectable in the archaeological record.

That said, the logic behind this idea is sound, it just has yet to be confirmed in any measurable way.

Gamble, C. (1982). Interaction and Alliance in Palaeolithic Society Man, 17 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2802103


This paper might be old but don’t worry, I wouldn’t dare teach you out of date ideas. The theory presented here is still considered a plausible explanation for the venus figurines by some

3 thoughts on ““Christmas parties” of the Upper Palaeolithic

  1. Pingback: 12,000 year old prehistoric art shows woman hunting | EvoAnth

  2. Pingback: First non-European Palaeolithic cave art discovered. It’s kinda boring (which just makes it fascinating) | EvoAnth

  3. Pingback: Venus figurines, Indonesian art and the interconnectedness of the Stone Age | EvoAnth

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