The predictors of the social status among traditional societies of Papua New Guinea

Life in the Wanang village © Martina Konečná

Social hierarchy exists in all human societies. Most studies that explored the determinants of social status were focused on Western, industrialized societies and used so called socio-economic status as a functional proxy for social rank. The socio-economic status is based on relative income, wealth and education. Studies focused on traditional societies used other, locally relevant proxies for social rank such as physical strength, community influence, or hunting skills. Published studies have shown that low socio-economic status is associated with poor health and chronic stress. It is unclear, however, if this relationship is a recent phenomenon in Western societies or a universal human characteristic that has been present throughout much of our recent evolutionary history.

Martina Konečná at the Department of Zoology, Faculty of Science, and her colleague Samuel Urlacher from the Department of Anthropology of The City University of New York studied the social status of men of the Garisakang tribe, who are hunter-gatherers and farmers living in the province of Madang in Papua New Guinea. They examined a wide range of proxies for social status and their relationship to age, body weight and salivary cortisol levels, a hormone released in response to stress. The aim of the study was to find out how the social rank influences the overall physical health and psychological well-being of people living in a traditional, egalitarian society.

The results of the analyses showed that social status correlates positively with age and body weight, but not with salivary cortisol levels. Salivary cortisol levels is positively correlated with income, suggesting that men of the Garisakang tribe with higher socio-economic status are experiencing more stress. This striking difference to our society can be explained by the deep-rooted local expectations of sharing and fear of conflict. In egalitarian societies, wealthier individuals are subject to frequent requests from their relatives, friends and acquaintances, and hence an increased psychological pressure. The study shows that when studying a social hierarchy, it is necessary to work with diverse human societies and various proxies for social rank. The patterns derived from the study of Western societies do not always apply to human populations all over the world.

Konečná, M., Urlacher, S. S. (2017). Male social status and its predictors among Garisakang forager-horticulturalists of lowland Papua New Guinea. Evolution and Human Behavior in press.