Human Nature

, Volume 25, Issue 4, pp 448–464

Fosterage as a System of Dispersed Cooperative Breeding

Evidence from the Himba

DOI: 10.1007/s12110-014-9211-6

Cite this article as:
Scelza, B.A. & Silk, J.B. Hum Nat (2014) 25: 448. doi:10.1007/s12110-014-9211-6


Humans are obligate cooperative breeders, relying heavily on support from kin to raise children. To date, most studies of cooperative breeding have focused on help that supplements rather than replaces parental care. Here we propose that fosterage can act as a form of dispersed cooperative breeding, one that enhances women’s fitness by allowing them to disinvest in some children and reallocate effort to others. We test this hypothesis through a series of predictions about the costs and benefits of fosterage for mothers, foster parents, and foster children using data from the Himba, a group of Namibian agro-pastoralists. We show that fostering out children enhances mothers’ fitness, and we provide evidence for a causal link from fosterage to enhanced fitness by showing that fosterage of early-born children is associated with greater maternal reproductive success. Foster parents minimize the costs of fosterage by skewing their care toward their postreproductive years, and by mainly fostering close kin. However, the system is associated with some detrimental effects on foster children, who are more likely to be stunted and underweight than their non-fostered counterparts.


Fosterage Cooperative breeding Himba Child nutrition 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA
  2. 2.School of Human Evolution & Social ChangeArizona State UniversityTempeUSA

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