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.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Alexander, Richard D. 1987 The Biology of Moral Systems. Hawthorne, New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Altman, Jon, and Nicolas Peterson 1988 Rights to Game and Rights to Cash among Contemporary Australian Huntergatherers. In Hunters and Gatherers: History, Evolution and Social Change, T. Ingold, D. Riches, and J. Woodburn, eds. Pp. 75–94. Oxford: Berg.
Alvard, Michael S., and Allan Gillespie in press Good Lamalera Whale Hunters Accrue Reproductive Benefits. Research in Economic Anthropology 24.
Alvard, Michael S., and David Nolin 2002 Rousseau’s Whale Hunt? Coordination among Big-game Hunters. Current Anthropology 43:533–559.
Axelrod, Robert, and William D. Hamilton 1981 The Evolution of Cooperation. Science 211:1390–1396.
Barkow, Jerome 1977 Conformity to Ethos and Reproductive Success in Two Hausa Communities. Ethos 5:409–425.
Bean, Lowell J. 1976 Social Organization in Native California. In Native Californians: A Theoretical Retrospective, L. J. Bean and T. C. Blackburn, eds. Pp. 99–123. Ramona, California: Ballena Press.
Bliege Bird, Rebecca L., Douglas W. Bird, Eric A. Smith, and Geoffrey Kushnick 2002 Risk and Reciprocity in Meriam Food Sharing. Evolution and Human Behavior 23:297–321.
Bliege Bird, Rebecca L., Eric A. Smith, and Douglas W. Bird 2001 The Hunting Handicap: Costly Signaling in Human Foraging Strategies. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 50:9–19.
Blurton Jones, Nicholas G. 1986 Bushman Birth Spacing: A Test for Optimal Interbirth Intervals. Ethology and Sociobiology 7:91–105.
Blurton Jones, Nicholas G., Lars C. Smith, James F. O’Connell, Kristen Hawkes, and C. L. Kamuzora 1992 Demography of the Hadza: An Increasing and High Density Population of Savannah Foragers. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 89:159–181.
Boone, James L. 1998 The Evolution of Magnanimity: When Is it Better to Give than to Receive? Human Nature 9:1–21.
Borgerhoff Mulder, Monique 1988 Reproductive Success in Three Kipsigis Cohorts. In Reproductive Success, T. H. Clutton-Brock, ed. Pp. 419–435. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
1998 The Demographic Transition: Are We Any Closer to an Evolutionary Explanation? Trends in Ecology and Evolution 13:266–270.
Bowles, Samuel, J. K. Choi, and A. Hopfensitz 2003 The Coevolution of Individual Behaviors and Social Institutions. Journal of Theoretical Biology 223:135–147.
Boyd, Robert, and Peter J. Richerson 1988 The Evolution of Reciprocity in Sizable Groups. Journal of Theoretical Biology 132:337–356.
1989 The Evolution of Indirect Reciprocity. Social Networks 11:213–236.
Clements, K. C., and D. W. Stephens 1995 Testing Models of Nonkin Cooperation: Mutualism and the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Animal Behaviour 50:527–535.
Cronk, Lee 1991 Wealth, Status, and Reproductive Success among the Mukogodo of Kenya. American Anthropologist 93:345–360
Dugatkin, Lee Alan 1997 Cooperation among Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press.
Flinn, Mark V. 1986 Correlates of Reproductive Success in a Caribbean Village. Human Ecology 8:225–243.
Gintis, Herbert, Eric Alden Smith, and Samuel L. Bowles 2001 Cooperation and Costly Signaling. Journal of Theoretical Biology 213:103–119.
Gurven, Michael 2005 To Give and To Give Not: The Behavioral Ecology of Human Food Transfers. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27(4). (in press)
Gurven, Michael, et al. 2000a “It’s a Wonderful Life”: Signaling Generosity among the Ache of Paraguay. Evolution and Human Behavior 21:263–282.
2000b Food Transfers among Hiwi Foragers of Venezuela: Tests of Reciprocity. Human Ecology 28:171–218.
2001 Reservation Food Sharing among the Ache of Paraguay. Human Nature 12:273–297.
Gurven, Michael, Kim Hill, and Hillard Kaplan 2002 From Forest to Reservation: Transitions in Food Sharing Behavior among the Ache of Paraguay. Journal of Anthropological Research 58:91–118.
Hames, Raymond B. 2000 Reciprocal Altruism in Yanomamö Food Exchange. In Adaptation and Human Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective, Lee Cronk, Napoleon Chagnon, and William Irons, eds. Pp. 397–416. Hawthorne, New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Hawkes, Kristen 1990 Why Do Men Hunt? Some Benefits for Risky Strategies. In Risk and Uncertainty, E. Cashdan, ed. Pp. 145–166. Boulder: Westview Press.
1993a Why HunterGatherers Work. Current Anthropology 34:341–362.
1993b Reply to Hill and Kaplan. Current Anthropology 34:706–710.
Hawkes, Kristen, and Rebecca Bliege Bird 2002 Showing Off, Handicap Signaling, and the Evolution of Men’s Work. Evolutionary Anthropology 11:58–67.
Hawkes, Kristen, James F. O’Connell, and Nicholas G. Blurton Jones 1997 Hadza Women’s Time Allocation, Offspring Provisioning, and the Evolution of Long Postmenopausal Life Spans. Current Anthropology 38:551–577.
2001a Hadza Meat Sharing. Evolution and Human Behavior 22:113–142.
2001b Hunting and Nuclear Families: Some Lessons from the Hadza about Men’s Work. Current Anthropology 42:681–709.
Henrich, Joseph, and Francisco J. Gil-White 2001 The Evolution of Prestige: Freely Conferred Deference as a Mechanism for Enhancing the Benefits of Cultural Transmission. Evolution and Human Behavior 22:165–196.
Hill, Kim, and A. Magdalena Hurtado 1996 Ache Life History: The Ecology and Demography of a Foraging People. Hawthorne, New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Howell, Nancy W. 1979 Demography of the Dobe !Kung. New York: Academic Press.
Hughes, Austin L. 1986 Reproductive Success and Occupational Class in Eighteenth Century Lancashire, England. Social Biology 33:109–115.
Irons, William 1979 Cultural and Biological Success. In Evolutionary Biology and Human Social Behavior: An Evolutionary Perspective, Napoleon Chagnon and William Irons, eds. Pp. 257–272. North Scituate, Massachusetts: Duxbury.
Kaplan, Hillard, and Kim Hill 1985a Hunting Ability and Reproductive Success among Male Ache Foragers: Preliminary Results. Current Anthropology 26:131–133.
1985b Food Sharing among Ache Foragers: Tests of Explanatory Hypotheses. Current Anthropology 26:223–246.
Kaplan, Hillard S., Jane B. Lancaster, John A. Bock, and Sara E. Johnson 1995 Does Observed Fertility Maximize Fitness among New Mexican Men? Human Nature 6:325–360.
Kelly, Robert L. 1995 The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in HunterGatherer Lifeways. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Lessells, Catherine 1991 The Evolution of Life Histories. In Behavioural Ecology: An Evolutionary Approach, third ed., J. R. Krebs and N. B. Davies, eds. Pp. 23–63. Oxford: Blackwell.
Lee, Richard B. 1979 The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Low, Bobbi S. 2000 Sex, Wealth, and Fertility: Old Rules, New Environments. In Adaptation and Human Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective, Lee Cronk, Napoleon Chagnon, and William Irons, eds. Pp. 323–344. Hawthorne, New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Low, Bobbi S., and Alice L. Clarke 1991 Family Patterns in Nineteenth Century Sweden: Impact of Occupational Status and Landownership. Journal of Family History 16:117–138.
Marlowe, Frank 1999 Showoffs or Providers? The Parenting Effort of Hadza Men. Evolution and Human Behavior 20:391–404.
2000 The Patriarch Hypothesis: An Alternative Explanation of Menopause. Human Nature 11:27–42.
2003 A Critical Period for Provisioning by Hadza Men: Implications for Pair Bonding. Evolution and Human Behavior 24:217–229.
Milinski, Manfred, Dirk Semmann, and Hans-Jürgen Krambeck 2002 Donors to Charity Gain in Both Indirect Reciprocity and Political Reputation. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B 269:881–883.
Mitani, John C., and David P. Watts 2001 Why Do Chimpanzees Hunt and Share Meat? Animal Behaviour 51:915–924.
Mohtashemi, M., and L. Mui 2003 Evolution of Indirect Reciprocity by Social Information: The Role of Trust and Reputation in Evolution of Altruism. Journal of Theoretical Biology 223:523–531.
Neiman, Fraser D. 1998 Conspicuous Consumption as Wasteful Advertising: A Darwinian Perspective on Spatial Patterns in Classic Maya Terminal Monument Dates. In Rediscovering Darwin: Evolutionary Theory and Archeological Explanation, C. Michael Barton and Geoffrey A. Clark, eds. Pp. 267–290. Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, No. 7. Washington, D.C.
Panchanathan, Karnik, and Rob Boyd 2004 Indirect Reciprocity Can Stabilize Cooperation without the Second-Order Free Rider Problem. Nature 432:499–502.
Patton, John Q. 2004 Coalitional Effects on Reciprocal Fairness in the Ultimatum Game: A Case from the Ecuadorian Amazon. In Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic Experiments and Ethnographic Evidence from Fifteen Small-scale Societies, Joseph Henrich, Robert Boyd, Samuel Bowles, Colin Camerer, Ernst Fehr, and Herbert Gintis, eds. Pp. 96–124. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2005 Meat Sharing for Coalitional Support. Evolution and Human Behavior 26, in press.
Ruyle, Eugene E. 1973 Slavery, Surplus, and Stratification on the Northwest Coast: The Ethnoenergetics of an Incipient Stratification System. Current Anthropology 14:603–631.
Sigmund, Karl, Ernst Fehr, and Martin A. Nowak 2002 The Economics of Fair Play. Scientific American 286(1):82–87.
Smith, Eric Alden 1993 Comment on “Why Hunter-gatherers Work” by Kristen Hawkes. Current Anthropology 34:356.
1998 Is Tibetan Polyandry Adaptive? Methodological and Metatheoretical Analyses. Human Nature 9:225–261.
Smith, Eric Alden, and Rebecca L. Bliege Bird 2000 Turtle Hunting and Tombstone Opening: Public Generosity as Costly Signaling. Evolution and Human Behavior 21:245–261.
2005 Costly Signaling and Cooperative Behavior. In Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: On the Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life, H. Gintis et al., eds. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, in press.
Smith, Eric Alden, Rebecca Bliege Bird, and Douglas W. Bird 2003 The Benefits of Costly Signaling: Meriam Turtle-hunters. Behavioral Ecology 14:116–126.
Smith, Eric Alden, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, and Kim Hill 2001 Controversies in the Evolutionary Social Sciences: A Guide for the Perplexed. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 16:128–135.
Sosis, Richard 2000 Costly Signaling and Torch Fishing on Ifaluk Atoll. Evolution and Human Behavior 21:223–244.
Sugiyama, Lawrence, and Richard Chacon 2000 Effects of Illness and Injury on Foraging among the Yora and Shiwiar: Pathology Risk as Adaptive Problem. In Adaptation and Human Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective, Lee Cronk, Napoleon Chagnon, and William Irons, eds. Pp. 371–395. Hawthorne, New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Symons, Donald 1989 A Critique of Darwinian Anthropology. Ethology and Sociobiology 10:131–144.
Trivers, Robert L. 1971 The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology 46:35–57.
Turke, Paul W., and Laura L. Betzig 1985 Those Who Can, Do: Wealth, Status, and Reproductive Success on Ifaluk. Ethology and Sociobiology 6:79–87.
Voland, Eckart 1990 Differential Reproductive Success within the Krummhörn Population (Germany, 18th and 19th Century). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 26:65–72.
Wiessner, Polly 1996 Leveling the Hunter: Constraints on the Status Quest in Foraging Societies. In Food and the Status Quest: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, Polly Wiessner and Wulf Schiefenhövel, eds. Pp. 171–191. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
2002 Hunting, Healing, and Hxaro Exchange: A Long-Term Perspective on !Kung (Ju/’hoansi) Large-Game Hunting. Evolution and Human Behavior 23:407–436.
Wilson, David Sloan 1998 Hunting, Sharing, and Multilevel Selection: The Tolerated Theft Model Revisited. Current Anthropology 39:73–97.
Winterhalder, Bruce 1996 Social Foraging and the Behavioral Ecology of Intragroup Resource Transfers. Evolutionary Anthropology 5:46–57.
Wood, Brian, and Kim Hill 2000 A Test of the “Showing off” Hypothesis with Ache Hunters. Current Anthropology 41:124–125.
Zahavi, Amotz 1995 Altruism as Handicap—The Limitations of Kin Selection and Reciprocity. Journal of Avian Biology 26:1–3.
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.
About this article
Cite this article
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
- Food sharing