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Comparison of social complexity in two independent pastoralist societies


Pastoralists rely on networks of cooperating households containing relatives and others to help with production and various other daily activities. To understand how socioecological differences and commonalities affect different social networks, we compared cooperative decision-making using gift games for 755 people working in herding groups across six sites in two countries (Saami areas in Norway and Tibetan areas in China). We found that members of the same herding group received more gifts from each other. Most variance in gift-giving between study sites was due to differences in the effects of relatedness. Tibetan herders were more likely than Saami herders to give gifts to closer relatives belonging to geographically distant herding groups. Also, stated reasons of giving gifts were different in the two societies: kin and wealth (measured by herd size) were more important among Tibetan pastoralists, while reciprocity was more important among Saami. Social ties within and beyond the family as well as the centrality of herding groups within social networks are general patterns of social organization favoring cooperation among pastoralists.

Significance statement

Pastoralists around the world have independently developed social institutions built around cooperative herding units, known as siidas in Norway and ru skor in China. Our study investigates how kin and non-kin, in the same herding group or belonging to other groups, are associated with cooperation. Our results show that communities in both countries exhibit similar social pattern in terms of who they chose to give gifts to, despite differences in socioeconomic status and culture. Most of the variance in cooperation occurred between sites, primarily due to the effect of kinship. Members of the same herding group were preferred recipients of gifts, regardless of kinship, although closer kin were more likely to receive gifts. The stated reasons for giving were different in the two sites: siidas prioritized reciprocity whereas ru skor preferred kin and less wealthy herders. We discuss that ecology should be taken into consideration in understanding social behaviors, even if under similar subsistence system.

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We thank the reindeer and yak herders for their help and their patience. Thanks also to our field assistants in Norway (Ida Ophaug and Jon Mikkel Eira) and in China (Bai Pengpeng, Jiu Cili, Gong Bao Cao). We would also like to thank three anonymous reviewers who give constructive criticism that has also improved the paper.


Field work and data collection in both sites were funded by “HIERARCHIES,” funded by the Norwegian Research Council (project number 240280). MWN and BJB were financed by “HIERARCHIES,” funded by the Norwegian Research Council (project number 240280). MWN, BJB, and MGT were financed by “ReiGN: Reindeer Husbandry in a Globalizing North—Resilience, Adaptations and Pathways for Actions”, which is a Nordforsk-funded “Nordic Centre of Excellence” (project number 76915). DJ was funded by the China Scholarship Council. MGT and RM received funding from European Research Council Advanced Grant AdG 249347 to RM. RM and DJ were also funded by Lanzhou University.

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Authors and Affiliations



MGT, DJ, BJB, RM, and MWN designed research; MGT and DJ collected data; MGT analyzed data; and MGT, DJ, BJB, RM, and MWN wrote the paper.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Ruth Mace or Marius Warg Næss.

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Competing interests

We have no competing interests


This research was approved in part by the University College London research ethics committee and by Lanzhou University. Field work in Kautokeino, Norway, was undertaken in accordance with the “General guidelines for research ethics” as stipulated by the Norwegian National Research Ethics Committee (NNREC; Specifically, interviews where undertaken in accordance with NNREC’s ethical checklist by (1) obtaining written informed consent, (2) ensuring that no dependent relationship exists that could influence the subjects’ decision to give consent, and (3) guaranteeing anonymity and confidentiality of the informants. See SI Text for descriptions of the study sites and data collection procedures.

Data, code, and materials

Data are deposited in [URL; DOI] and code to reproduce our analyses is available from

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Communicated by D. Lukas

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This article is a contribution to the Topical Collection Social complexity: patterns, processes, and evolution - Guest Editors: Peter Kappeler, Susanne Shultz, Tim Clutton-Brock, and Dieter Lukas

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Du, J., Thomas, M.G., Bårdsen, BJ. et al. Comparison of social complexity in two independent pastoralist societies. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 73, 4 (2019).

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