An Evolutionary View of Humans 3: Remembering Names

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Efe people
Ituri Forest
Anthrophoto is an
excellent source for
anthropology stock

How good are you at remembering names? If you are really good … if you can hear someone’s name once and always remember it … you have a calling as a politician. If you would otherwise suck as a politician, but are good at explaining things, maybe a job as a teacher (but that requires other skills as well). In any event, you are a rare bird.

Humans have typically lived in small groups. This is especially true of foragers. Not only are these groups fairly small, but they are also fairly stable. The movement that does occur between groups is typically restricted to a larger “meta-group” consisting of a few different small groups. In other words, if you are a forager sitting around with the people you live with … the people in your “residence group” as we call it … the person sitting across from you is most likely someone whom you’ve known all your life (or visa versa, depending on your relative age).

Just as importantly, the total number of people you will know during your entire life well may stay in the hundreds. That’s total. Compare that to your own “Western” experience. Count the people in each neighborhood you’ve ever lived in (whom you knew), the people in all the different grades of school you’ve been in, and the people at all the different workplaces you’ve worked in. That is probably a large number. If it is a small number, then you don’t’ get out enough. You should get out more. At least go see a movie or something…

The point of this is that remembering names is something we have not evolved to do well for at least two reasons: 1) Everybody you run into is someone you already know (most of the time) and 2) Everybody you know is someone you’ve known for a long time, so you get a long time to remember their names.

There may be another aspect of this as well, but I simply do not know how broadly this applies across forager societies. In at least some societies, it is typical to use personal names only rarely. The day to day conversation among people in many camps and villages of which I am aware makes reference to people by kinship or other generic terms, not names. During my research in the Ituri, I participated in a long term project (as a trained helper) in which we collected demographic and physical data from a large sample of people. This was something all participants in the project agreed to do in order to maintain and grow a large and important data base. As part of this a couple of us would show up in some camp (of Efe) or village (of the horticultural Lese people in the same area) and run down the list, checking off who was still in the village, getting a body weight, a few other bits of information, etc.

There were times when I would ask, say, Joe, who that person over there was (to avoid the embarrassment of not knowing) and Joe would say “oh, that’s my sister.” Then I would say “what’s her name, you have two sisters” and Joe would yell across the compound “Hey dad, what’s my older sister’s name…”


This would be partly because Joe would normally refer to his sister as “my sister” rather than by her name, and partly because nine years ago, Joe’s sister had a baby boy named, say, Frank, and has been since known as “mother of Frank.”

(There are of course other occasions, well known in anthropological circles, where a person cannot say a certain other person’s name. Maybe your culture prohibits you from naming an inlaw, for instance. I am not talking about this situation here.)

The point is that the Western concept of personal names and how they are used is fairly culturally specific. What seems like a common deficit, the general difficulty we have in remembering names when we first hear them, is actually quite expected.

There reason you can’t remember anyone’s name is because there are too many names to remember and you haven’t had a chance yet. And evolution. Not your fault.

An Evolutionary View of Humans 1: Introduction
An Evolutionary View of Humans 2: Sleep
An Evolutionary View of Humans 3: Remembering Names
An Evolutionary View of Humans 4: Sharing
An Evolutionary View of Humans 5: The Opposite Sex

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