Question Your World: How Long Has Humanity Been Visiting Relatives?

Posted: November 20, 2018

Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the holiday season here in the United States. This last chunk of the year is commonly known for lots of food, presents, and traveling long distances to visit family. Over the years, visiting folks from far away has helped to strengthen familial bonds, exchange new information, and spread recipes, songs, stories, and more. Humanity has been doing this for quite some time though. Let’s use this upcoming holiday to dig into a great science question: How long has humanity been visiting relatives?

Thanksgiving, much like many other holidays, involves bringing people together from all over the place, but keep in mind, we’re simply following in our ancient ancestors footsteps here. At one point, our species was much smaller in number. Some believe we got down to just a few hundred individual humans due to the stresses of climate, predators, and territorial disputes with other hominid species. While we may have had plenty of relatives, visiting them may not have been top priority, due to the survival issues that early humans were constantly facing. Regardless, at some point, we did start traveling back and forth to visit other humans and thus built the foundation of what we see worldwide today. Thanksgiving is just one holiday of the many celebrated around the world that involves bringing people together. It turns out that we humans simply love getting together and use a myriad of reasons to make these long journeys happen. Weddings, holidays, births, and so on have been bringing people together for ages.

recent study of ancient tools is giving scientists a new look at how some of our oldest relatives also traveled long distances to interact with each other. Scientists were looking at tools from 59,000 to 66,000 years ago to better understand the changes in tool design over the years. Interestingly enough, it turns out that a site located about 180 miles away from their study site had very similar tool designs. Both sites have ancient designs featuring small blades and backed tools, while other areas in this time period tended to have tools with larger blades and pointy features. The similar tools found in these two distant regions indicates the two communities interacted, exchanging knowledge on this style of toolmaking, opening up possibilities for many other cultural interactions as well. So, yes, we travel a lot to see one another these days, but visiting relatives is something that we've been doing for quite some time now! 

While these visits had nothing to do with Thanksgiving, this study does further support the notion of distant communities interacting with each other, perhaps a somewhat regular occurrence back then. Working together and keeping up with communities near and far helped our ancient relatives survive and flourish, perhaps something to consider if Thanksgiving conversations get heated. Remember, we’re all in it together folks! 

Perhaps there are no truer words than what comedian George Burns once said: “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” 

From all of us to all of you, happy Thanksgiving everyone!