Background: Arguably the most influential force in human history is the formation of social coalitions and alliances (i.e., long-lasting coalitions) and their impact on individual power. Understanding the dynamics of alliance formation and its consequences for biological, social, and cultural evolution is a formidable theoretical challenge. In most great ape species, coalitions occur at individual and group levels and among both kin and non-kin. Nonetheless, ape societies remain essentially hierarchical, and coalitions rarely weaken social inequality. In contrast, human hunter-gatherers show a remarkable tendency to egalitarianism, and human coalitions and alliances occur not only among individuals and groups, but also among groups of groups. These observations suggest that the evolutionary dynamics of human coalitions can only be understood in the context of social networks and cognitive evolution.