Skip to main content

Fosterage as a System of Dispersed Cooperative Breeding

Evidence from the Himba

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig 1

References

  • Ainsworth, M. (1996) Economic aspects of child fostering in Cote d’Ivoire. In P. Schultz (Ed.) Research in population economics vol. 8 (pp. 25–62). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

  • Akresh, R. (2009). Flexibility of household structure in child fostering decisions in Burkina Faso. Journal of Human Resources, 44, 976–997.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Alber, E. (2003). Denying biological parenthood: fosterage in Northern Benin. Ethnos, 68, 487–506.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Anokhi, P., DeSilva, M. B., Cakwe, M., Quinlan, R., Simon, J., Skalicky, A., & Zhuwau, R. (2007). Exploring the Cinderella myth: intrahousehold differences in child wellbeing between orphans and non-orphans in Amajuba district, south africa. AIDS, 21, S95–S103.

    Google Scholar 

  • Betzig, L. (1988). Adoption by rank on Ifaluk. American Anthropologist, 90, 111–119.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bledsoe, C. (1990). No success without struggle: social mobility and hardship for foster children in Sierra Leone. Man, 25, 70–88.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bledsoe, C., Ewbank, D. C., & Isiugo-Abanihe, U. C. (1988). The effect of child fostering on feeding practices and access to health services in rural Sierra Leone. Social Science and Medicine, 27, 627–636.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bledsoe, C., & Isiugo-Abanihe, U. (1989). Strategies of child-fosterage among Mende grannies in Sierra Leone. In R. J. Lesthaeghe (Ed.), Reproduction and social organization in sub-Saharan Africa (pp. 442–474). Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bollig, M. (2006). Risk management in a hazardous environment: a comparative study of two pastoral societies. New York: Springer.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Borgerhoff-Mulder, M. (1985). Bridewealth and its correlates: quantifying changes over time. Current Anthropology, 36, 573–603.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bowie, F. (Ed.). (2004). Cross-cultural approaches to adoption. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Carroll, V. (1970). Adoption on Nukuoro. In B. Carroll (Ed.), Adoption in Eastern Oceania (pp. 121–157). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Castle, S. E. (1995). Child fostering and children’s nutritional outcomes in rural Mali: the role of female status in directing child transfers. Social Science and Medicine, 40, 679–693.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (1985). Child abuse and other risks of not living with both parents. Ethology and Sociobiology, 6, 197–210.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Goody, J. (1969). Adoption in cross-cultural perspective. Comparative Studies in Social History, 11, 55–78.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Guemple, L. (1979). Inuit Adoption. Canadian Ethnology Service, Mercury Series No. 47. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada.

  • Hawkes, K., O’Connell, J. F., & Blurton Jones, N. G. (1997). Hadza women’s time allocation, offspring provisioning, and the evolution of long postmenopausal life spans. Current Anthropology, 38, 551–577.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hawkes, K., O’Connell, J. F., Blurton Jones, N. G., Alvarez, H., & Charnov, E. L. (1998). Grandmothering, menopause and the evolution of human life histories. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 95, 1336–1339.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hill, K., & Hurtado, A. M. (1996). Ache life history: the ecology and demography of a foraging people. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hrdy, S. B. (2005). Cooperative breeders with an ace in the hole. In E. Voland, A. Chasiotis, & W. Schiefencovel (Eds.), Grandmotherhood: The evolutionary significance of the second half of female life (pp. 295–317). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hrdy, S. B. (2009). Mothers and others. Cambridge: Belknap.

    Google Scholar 

  • Isiugo-Abanihe, U. C. (1985). Child fosterage in West Africa. Population and Development Review, 11, 53–73.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lindblade, K. A., Odihambo, F., Rosen, D. H., & DeCock, K. M. (2003). Health and nutritional status of orphans <6 years old care for by relatives in western Kenya. Tropical Medicine and International Health, 8, 67–72.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Little, M. A., Galvin, K., & Mugambi, M. (1983). Cross-sectional growth of nomadic Turkana pastoralists. Human Biology, 55, 811–830.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mace, R. (2000). Evolutionary ecology of human life history. Animal Behavior, 59, 1–10.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Madhavan, S., & Townsend, N. (2007). The social context of children’s nutritional status in rural South Africa. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 35, 107–117.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Malan, J. S. (1973). Double descent among the Himba of South West Africa. Cimbebasia, 2, 81–112.

    Google Scholar 

  • Malan, J. S. (1995). Peoples of Namibia. Pretoria: Haum.

    Google Scholar 

  • Monasch, R., & Boerma, J. T. (2004). Orphanhood and childcare patterns in sub-Saharan Africa: an analysis of national surveys from 40 countries. AIDS, 18, S55–S65.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Oleke, C., Blystad, A., Moland, K. M., Rekdal, O. B., & Heggenhougen, K. (2006). The varying vulnerability of African orphans: the case of the Langi, northern Uganda. Childhood, 13, 267–284.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pennington, R. (1991). Child fostering as a reproductive strategy among southern African pastoralists. Ethology and Sociobiology, 12, 83–104.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • RendeTaylor, L. (2005). Patterns of child fosterage in rural northern Thailand. Journal of Biosocial Science, 37, 333–350.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sahlins, M. D. (1976). The use and abuse of biology: An anthropological critique of sociobiology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Scelza, B. A. (2011a). Female mobility and postmarital kin access in a patrilocal society. Human Nature, 22, 377–393.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Scelza, B. A. (2011b). Female choice and extra-pair paternity in a traditional human population. Biology Letters, 7, 889–891.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Scelza, B. A. (2014). Jealousy in a small-scale, natural fertility population: the roles of paternity, investment and love in jealous response. Evolution and Human Behavior, 35, 103–108.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sear, R., & Mace, R. (2008). Who keeps children alive? A review of the effects of kin on child survival. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29, 1–18.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sear, R., Mace, R., & McGregor, I. (2000). Maternal grandmothers improve nutritional status and survival of children in rural Gambia. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 267, 1641–1647.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sellen, D. W. (2000). Age, sex and anthropometric status of children in an African pastoral community. Annals of Human Biology, 27, 345–365.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Shell-Duncan, B. (1994). Child fostering among nomadic Turkana pastoralists: demographic and health consequences. In E. Fratkin, K. A. Galvin, & E. A. Roth (Eds.), African pastoralist systems: An integrated approach (pp. 147–164). Boulder, CO: Rienner.

    Google Scholar 

  • Silk, J. B. (1980). Adoption and kinship in Oceania. American Anthropologist, 82, 799–820.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Silk, J. B. (1987a). Adoption among the Inuit. Ethos, 15, 320–330.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Silk, J. B. (1987b). Adoption and fosterage in human societies: Adaptations or enigmas? Cultural Anthropology, 2, 39–49.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Silk, J. B. (1990). Human adoption in evolutionary perspective. Human Nature, 1, 25–52.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sudre, P., Serdula, M., Binkin, N., Staehling, N., & Kramer, M. (1990). Child fostering, health and nutritional status: the experience of Swaziland. Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 24, 181–188.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Trivers, R. L. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.), Sexual selection and the descent of man (pp. 136–179). Chicago: Aldine.

    Google Scholar 

  • Trivers, R. L. (1974). Parent-offspring conflict. American Zoologist, 14, 249–264.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Volk, A. A. (2011). Adoption: forms, functions and preferences. In C. Salmon & T. Shackelford (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Family Psychology (pp.113–127). NY: Oxford University Press.

Download references

Acknowledgments

We would, first and foremost, like to thank the Himba familes who participated in this research for their cooperation, patience, and hospitality. We would also like to thank Kemuu Jakurama (1976–2012), whose local knowledge and expertise were essential to this research and whose warm heart and good humor made the fieldwork so much more fun. BAS would also like to thank Michael Bollig, who first alerted me to the prominence of the fosterage system among the Himba, and Steve Josephson, who provided indispensable support during my initial trip to Namibia. This work was generously funded by the Wenner Gren Foundation and the UCLA Center for the Study of Women.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Brooke A. Scelza.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Scelza, B.A., Silk, J.B. Fosterage as a System of Dispersed Cooperative Breeding. Hum Nat 25, 448–464 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-014-9211-6

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-014-9211-6

Keywords

  • Fosterage
  • Cooperative breeding
  • Himba
  • Child nutrition