Dunbar’s Number in Human Society

Taino villages were enormous, about 1,000 to 2,000 people, among the largest villages ever recorded—villages about the size of some tribes. This is unusual. In most aboriginal societies, when villages reach a few hundred people, they split up, with a dissident group going its own way, though maintaining lineage ties after tempers cool off. The Taino of Cuba and the Hispaniola were able to suppress this impulse because of the constant predation of the Carib peoples, who were like Viking raiders without the good points. But I’m more interested in the normal case—why do aboriginal villages split after reaching a few hundred people?

Dunbar’s Number

The solution was suggested by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar in the 1990’s. Mr. Dunbar concluded that we human beings can only intimately know the relationships in a network of about 150 people. So, when aboriginal villages star to become mentally crowded, cliques inevitably form, and a break follows. A chief with a strong force of personality—of the inhumane kind—can keep a large village together for a time, but not for long.

One hundred and fifty is now ‘Dunbar’s number’, and once you are aware of 150, it appears everywhere. One fifty is the median number of inhabitants in a Neolithic village; the size of the unit of organization in the Roman army; and in armies from the Renaissance to modern times.

Dunbar’s number is a maximum—in situations not as dire as being in a military company or in a Neolithic village, the ideal ‘number’ we can juggle in our minds is much smaller. And not all relationships apply to it, your intimate group of friends can only be much smaller—about five people according to Robin Dunbar. Keeping track of such intense relationships is both time-consuming and emotionally draining. Other relationships require going either below or above Dunbar’s number for best effect, but that’s the subject of next week’s post.

* This is part 2 of a three part series about human organization.

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