Why do good hunters have higher reproductive success?

Abstract

Anecdotal evidence from many hunter-gatherer societies suggests that successful hunters experience higher prestige and greater reproductive success. Detailed quantitative data on these patterns are now available for five widely dispersed cases (Ache, Hadza, !Kung, Lamalera, and Meriam) and indicate that better hunters exhibit higher age-corrected reproductive success than other men in their social group. Leading explanations to account for this pattern are: (1) direct provisioning of hunters’ wives and offspring, (2) dyadic reciprocity, (3) indirect reciprocity, (4) costly signaling, and (5) phenotypic correlation. I examine the qualitative and quantitative evidence bearing on these explanations and conclude that although none can be definitively rejected, extensive and apparently unconditional sharing of large game somewhat weakens the first three explanations. The costly signaling explanation has support in some cases, although the exact nature of the benefits gained from mating or allying with or deferring to better hunters needs further study.

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Correspondence to Eric Alden Smith.

Additional information

For comments on earlier drafts, I thank Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, Mike Gurven, Ray Hames, Kristen Hawkes, Kim Hill, Robert Kelly, Frank Marlowe, John Patton, and Polly Wiessner. Rebecca Bliege Bird and Douglas W. Bird invited me to collaborate in the Meriam research and (along with Del Passi of Mer) collected the data on Meriam demography. Geoff Kushnick and Matt Wimmer ably assisted with coding and statistical analysis of these data.

Eric Alden Smith (PhD 1980, Cornell University) is a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle. His research interests include the links between production and reproduction, the ecology and evolution of collective action, and politics in small-scale societies. He has conducted fieldwork among Inuit on Hudson Bay, Meriam in Torres Strait, and Mardu Aborigines in the Australian Western Desert.

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Smith, E.A. Why do good hunters have higher reproductive success?. Hum Nat 15, 343–364 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-004-1013-9

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Key words

  • Food sharing
  • Hunter-gatherers
  • Reciprocity
  • Signaling