Variation in the Social Systems of Extant Hominoids: Comparative Insight into the Social Behavior of Early Hominins

N. Malone, A. Fuentes, F. J. White

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32 Scopus citations


The observed social systems of extant apes and humans suggest that the common ancestral state for Miocene hominoids was living in multimale-multifemale groups that exhibited a tendency to fission and fusion in response to ecological and/or social variables. The Hominoidea share a set of social commonalities, notably a social niche that extends beyond kin and beyond the immediate social group, as well as extensive intraspecific flexibility in social organization. We propose that an essential feature of hominoid evolution is the shift from limited plasticity in a generalized social ape to expanded behavioral plasticity as an adaptive niche. Whereas in most nonhominoid primates variability and flexibility take the shape of specific patterns of demographic flux and interindividual relationships, we can consider behavioral flexibility and plasticity as a means to an end in hominoid socioecological landscapes. In addition, the potential for innovation, spread, and inheritance of behavioral patterns and social traditions is much higher in the hominoids, especially the great apes, than in other anthropoid primates. We further suggest that this pattern forms a basis for the substantial expansion of social complexity and adaptive behavioral plasticity in the hominins, especially the genus Homo. Our objectives in this article are threefold: 1) summarize the variation in the social systems of extant hominoid taxa; 2) consider the evolutionary processes underlying these variations; and 3) expand upon the traditional socioecological model, especially with respect to reconstructions of early hominin social behavior. We emphasize a central role for both ecological and social niche construction, as well as behavioral plasticity, as basal hominoid characteristics. Over evolutionary time these characteristics influence the patterns of selection pressures and the resulting social structures. We propose that a mosaic of ecological and social inheritance patterns should be considered in the reconstruction of early hominin social systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1251-1277
Number of pages27
JournalInternational Journal of Primatology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2012
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


  • Ecological and social niche construction
  • Evolution
  • Hominin social organization
  • Hominoidea


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