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Thinking Big

How the Evolution of Social Life Shaped the Human Mind

Clive Gamble, John Gowlett, Robin Dunbar


A novel hypothesis by world-class scientists about the evolution of our social lives

Also available as an eBook from iTunes, Amazon


When and how did the brains of our hominin ancestors become human minds? When and why did our capacity for language, art, music and dance evolve? This pathbreaking book proposes that it was the need for early humans to live in ever-larger social groups over greater distances – the ability to ‘think big’ – that drove the enlargement of the human brain and the development of the human mind. This ‘social brain hypothesis’, put forward by evolutionary psychologists such as Robin Dunbar, can be tested against archaeological and fossil evidence.

The conclusions here – the fruits of over seven years of research – build on the insight that modern humans live in effective social groups of about 150 (so-called ‘Dunbar’s number’), some three times the size of those of apes and our early ancestors. We live in a world dominated by social networking. Yet our virtual contact lists, whether on Facebook or Twitter, are on average no bigger than Dunbar’s number.

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'Thinking Big is destined to become a classic'
Brian Fagan, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, University of California

'You will not read a more important book this year. It could make us a little wiser about ourselves'

'A delightful compendium of history, theory and fascinating experiments that will keep you engaged throughout'
BBC Focus

'Thinking Big is like the Big Bang: it probably isn’t the total answer, but there is no doubt that it answers a large number of observable phenomena, and it will serve as the dominant model for debating and refining our ideas about the origins and evolution of human cognition for decades to come'
Society of Antiquaries Newsletter

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Product Information

Book Details

Format: Hardback

Size: 23.4 x 15.6 cm

Extent: 224 pp

Publication date: 27 May 2014

ISBN: 9780500051801

Contents List

Preface • 1: Psychology Meets Archaeology • 2: What It Means to Be Social • 3: Ancient Social Lives • 4: Ancestors With Small Brains • 5: Building the Human Niche: Three Crucial Skills • 6: Ancestors with Large Brains • 7: Living in Big Societies

About the Author

Clive Gamble is a British archaeologist and anthropologist, and Professor of Archaeology at Southampton University. He has been described as the 'UK’s foremost archaeologist investigating our earliest ancestors'.

John Gowlett is Professor of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology at Liverpool University. He is involved in fieldwork in eastern and southern Africa.

Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist specialised in primate behaviour. He is currently head of the Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. He is best known for formulating Dunbar's number, a measurement of the 'cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships'.

List of Contributors

Robin Dunbar

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