Cooperative breeding in South American hunter-gatherers

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208 Scopus citations


Evolutionary researchers have recently suggested that pre-modern human societies habitually practised cooperative breeding and that this feature helps explain human prosocial tendencies. Despite circumstantial evidence that post-reproductive females and extra-pair males both provide resources required for successful reproduction by mated pairs, no study has yet provided details about the flow of food resources by different age and sex categories to breeders and offspring, nor documented the ratio of helpers to breeders. Here, we show in two hunter-gatherer societies of South America that each breeding pair with dependent offspring on average obtained help from approximately 1.3 non-reproductive adults. Young married males and unmarried males of all ages were the main food providers, accounting for 93-100% of all excess food production available to breeding pairs and their offspring. Thus, each breeding pair with dependants was provisioned on average by 0.8 adult male helpers. The data provide no support for the hypothesis that post-reproductive females are the main provisioners of younger reproductive-aged kin in hunter-gatherer societies. Demographic and food acquisition data show that most breeding pairs can expect food deficits owing to foraging luck, health disabilities and accumulating dependency ratio of offspring in middle age, and that extra-pair provisioning may be essential to the evolved human life history.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3863-3870
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1674
StatePublished - Nov 7 2009


  • Cooperative breeding
  • Hunter-gatherers
  • Life history

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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