Large-scale cooperation in small-scale foraging societies

Robert Boyd, Peter J. Richerson

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


We present evidence that people in small-scale mobile hunter-gatherer societies cooperated in large numbers to produce collective goods. Foragers engaged in large-scale communal hunts and constructed shared capital facilities; they made shared investments in improving the local environment; and they participated in warfare, formed enduring alliances, and established trading networks. Large-scale collective action often played a crucial role in subsistence. The provision of public goods involved the cooperation of many individuals, so each person made only a small contribution. This evidence suggests that large-scale cooperation occurred in the Pleistocene societies that encompass most of human evolutionary history, and therefore it is unlikely that large-scale cooperation in Holocene food producing societies results from an evolved psychology shaped only in small-group interactions. Instead, large-scale human cooperation needs to be explained as an adaptation, likely rooted in distinctive features of human biology, grammatical language, increased cognitive ability, and cumulative cultural adaptation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)175-198
Number of pages24
JournalEvolutionary anthropology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 1 2022


  • collective action
  • communal foraging
  • cooperation
  • foragers
  • hunter-gatherers
  • mismatch hypothesis
  • public goods

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology


Dive into the research topics of 'Large-scale cooperation in small-scale foraging societies'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this