The evolution of early hominin food production and sharing

Ingela Alger, Slimane Dridi, Jonathan Stieglitz et Michael Wilson


How did humans evolve from individualistic to collective foraging with sex differences in production and widespread sharing of plant and animal foods? While current evolutionary scenarios focus on meat, cooking, or grandparental subsidies, considerations of the economics of foraging for extracted plant foods (e.g., roots, tubers), inferred to be important for early hominins (∼6 to 2.5 mya), suggest that early hominins shared such foods with offspring and others. Here, we present a conceptual and mathematical model of early hominin food production and sharing, prior to the emergence of frequent hunting, cooking, and increased lifespan. We hypothesize that extracted plant foods were vulnerable to theft, and that male mate guarding protected females from food theft. We identify conditions favoring extractive foraging and food sharing across mating systems (i.e., monogamy, polygyny, promiscuity), and we assess which system maximizes female fitness with changes in the profitability of extractive foraging. Females extract foods and share them with males only when: i) extracting rather than collecting plant foods pays off energetically; and ii) males guard females. Males extract foods when they are sufficiently high in value, but share with females only under promiscuous mating and/or no mate guarding. These results suggest that if early hominins had mating systems with pair-bonds (monogamous or polygynous), then food sharing by adult females with unrelated adult males occurred before hunting, cooking, and extensive grandparenting. Such cooperation may have enabled early hominins to expand into more open, seasonal habitats, and provided a foundation for the subsequent evolution of human life histories.

Publié dans

PNAS, vol. 120, n° 25, juin 2023