Hunter-gatherers subsidize families…for the benefit of everyone

© 2021 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Egalitarian, cooperative, and fiercely-protective of their personal freedoms, hunter-gatherers are also very practical. They know that parents can’t afford to raise kids without help. So everybody pitches in — and society thrives.

Family subsidies. Childcare help. Support for parents struggling to make ends meet.

We sometimes talk as if these policies are the inventions of modern-day reformers. After all, isn’t the whole history of our species a tale of rugged individualism? Survival of the fittest?

Aren’t we all descended from the evolutionary “winners” — ancestors who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps?

It might sound scientific, but it’s wrong.

Parents have always needed help. In fact, our species is especially dependent on extra-parental helpers to survive. And this was just as true in the past — when our ancestors lived by hunting and gathering — as it is today.

Have you ever tried walking ten miles through the bush with a baby on your back and toddler in tow? While keeping an eye out for predators? And digging up yams or collecting bird eggs? Good luck.

A mother didn’t have the option of staying home all day — leaving the foraging to someone else. Then as now, it was a question of economics. To raise children — to feed the family — both parents needed to participate in economic activity. Even then, two parents weren’t enough.

We can see this clearly if we look at modern-day hunter-gatherers — the people whose life-ways most closely resemble those of our foraging ancestors.

Throughout the world, there are a few of these societies left, and they provide us with vital insights.

When anthropologists have studied hunter-gatherer economics, they’ve found that parents aren’t self-sufficient.

They don’t produce enough to feed their own families. They aren’t solely responsible for childcare. They get help. Crucial, necessary help.

Consider the Hadza people, who live in the Lake Eyasi region of Tanzania.

In his study of the Hadza, Frank Marlowe found that the average adult Hadza woman gathered approximately 3016 calories’ worth of food each day. But this was true only for women who didn’t have any children under the age of 8.

Add young children to the equation, and women weren’t able to gather as much food each day. Especially women with babies.

The average breastfeeding woman gathered only 1713 calories worth of food per day. At precisely the time when mothers needed more calories (to feed their babies), their foraging “paychecks” were taking a big hit.

How were Hadza mothers making up for the economic shortfall?

Fathers were stepping up their foraging efforts. During the first year  postpartum, married men increased their average daily contributions from about 2990 calories to 3851 calories per day.

But that still left these families suffering a net loss. They couldn’t make ends meet by themselves.

So other people — like grandmothers — contributed. Other people made up the difference.

And that’s how Hadza babies survive to become Hadza adults.

Kim Hill and Ana Magdalena Hurtado have documented a similar pattern among other foraging groups in South America.

Married couples with young children don’t produce enough food to be self-sufficient. On the contrary, they experience stunning deficits during the child-rearing years — falling short by thousands of calories each day.

Yet they don’t starve to death. Nor are they considered failures. Families are provisioned by other adults (including non-relatives) because it’s necessary for children to grow and thrive (Hill and Hurtado 2009).

Then there is the type of help that we might call “daycare” or “babysitting.”

That hypothetical foraging scenario I presented earlier? About the mother bringing her baby and toddler along? It doesn’t typically happen that way.

A breastfeeding mother will bring her baby with her. But older children? She frequently leaves them at home, in camp. And this works only because hunter-gatherers enjoy a free, cooperative form of daycare.

Children tend to spend their time in multi-age playgroups. The oldest kids serve as babysitters, with back-up from the adult neighbors who stay behind to monitor things and do chores (Konner 2010; Marlowe 2010).

So hunter-gatherer parents get free daycare for their toddlers and “big kids”, as well as direct economic assistance. And in many cases, mothers get substantial help with infant care, too.

For example, in a recent analysis of 5 different traditional foraging societies (in Africa, Australia, South America, and the Philippines), mothers provided about half of all care-giving to their own babies. The rest was contributed by older siblings, fathers, and grandmothers (Kramer and Veile 2018).

Even among the Kalahari San — people known for very high levels of maternal care — mothers don’t do it alone. In one study, Melvin Konner found that non-mothers accounted for about 20-25% of all physical contact that babies had received over their first 20 months (Konner 2010).

Just how common are these income subsidies and childcare benefits? Pretty darned common — especially when things are tough.

Modern-day hunter gatherers live in a variety of environments, and they each have their own, distinct cultures. So the details vary.

But as a general rule, care-giving help increases as a function of hardship. The more difficult it is to make a living, the more likely parents are to receive help (Martin et al 2020).

And food-sharing? Making sure that every group member gets what he or she needs? That’s the economic bedrock of all hunter-gatherer societies.

But why? Why do hunter-gatherers behave like this? Why don’t they behave more…selfishly?

It isn’t — as libertarian icon Ayn Rand once suggested — because hunter-gatherer people are simple-minded conformists. It isn’t because hunter-gatherers don’t value personal freedom, or individual rights.

On the contrary, the consensus of anthropologists who have studied foragers is that these folks are tremendously invested in personal autonomy. There are no formal hierarchies. All adults exercise equal decision-making power. They don’t tolerate bossiness. They don’t boss around their kids, let alone boss around each other.

And when it comes to economics, hunter-gatherers are practical. They know they can’t survive without sharing food. Not in the long run.

Sure, a childless adult — an unmarried man with outstanding hunting skills — might be capable of feeding himself without anybody else’s help. Today.

But he wouldn’t have survived to adulthood if his parents hadn’t had help.

And the others in his group? The people he relies on for group defense? For exchanges of resources? For shared information about the environment?

Without childhood subsidies, it’s likely that they wouldn’t have survived either.

Just as crucially, sharing helps this man cope with life’s unpredictable twists and turns. Hunters frequently experience streaks of bad luck, and fail to bag any prey for many days in a row. Foragers sometimes become ill, or injured. What then? Sharing is their insurance policy, their lifeline.

What about our world? The modern world of industry and mass communication? Things aren’t so different.

Granted, we’re not as egalitarian as hunter-gatherers. We don’t live in small bands. Our society’s economy isn’t based on foraging.  

But those of us who are parents still need help. In fact, in some respects we’re more burdened, more needy.

Most of us lack the free childcare that hunter-gatherers take for granted. In pursuit of employment, we relocate to places far from other adult family members.  Our kids require more time — and more extensive training — to develop the necessary skills for economic independence. It’s very costly.

Moreover, just like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we are deeply interconnected. Other people’s children — their successes, their failures — have an impact on the rest of society.

Poverty puts children at risk for costly, chronic health problems. It fuels crime rates. It causes poor educational outcomes (Cooper and Stewart 2020). And all of this lowers a society’s economic productivity.

A recent analysis of the U.S. economy estimates that child poverty costs more than a trillion dollars a year — 5.4% of the U.S. gross domestic product (McGloughlin and Rank 2018).

That’s dramatic, but there’s even more: there are the hardships experienced by other, more economically fortunate families.

You don’t have to have fallen to the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to experience adversity and toxic stress. 

For example, in the United States today, the unmet need for affordable, quality childcare is causing major disruption, forcing many parents to quit their jobs, or reduce their working hours. 

It’s also clear that families are impacted by the high cost of health care. What happens when parents are forced to make terrible tradeoffs — like deferring medical care to pay the rent?

And what about kids with special problems — like developmental disorders, medical conditions, learning disabilities?

Parents can’t possibly fix these problems on their own, and when their struggling children turn into struggling adults, society at large pays a price.

Yet the myth persists — the myth of self-efficiency, the myth that parenting is a distinctly private enterprise. An expensive, messy, vanity project that parents are supposed to handle on their own.

What? You started a hobby of hot-housing exotic flowers, and now it’s too hard for you? You need someone to help you monitor the humidity levels while you’re at work? You can’t afford to buy enough fertilizer? You plants aren’t getting enough sunlight? That’s sad, but it’s not my problem. 

Our ancestors didn’t approach parenting this way. If they had, they would have died out. Because of course parenting isn’t a personal vanity project. It wasn’t then. It isn’t now. When it comes to the success or of the next generation, we’re all of us stakeholders. Whether we’re parents or not.

Do we want to live in a society that is safe and secure? A society with less crime, and fewer public health threats? 

Do we want to live in a society where we help children reach their full potential, so they can grow up to become productive, skilled, reliable allies? The sort of people who will solve problems, pay the bills, innovate, build, create, discover, protect, and make the world a better place?

It’s time to embrace our heritage, and re-commit to the basic values that make us human. 

References: Hunter-gatherers and parental helpers

Apicella CL, Marlowe FW, Fowler JH, Christakis NA. 2012. Social networks and cooperation in hunter-gatherers. Nature 481:497–502.

Allen-Arave W, Gurven M, Hill K. 2008. Reciprocal altruism, rather than kin selection, maintains nepotistic food transfers on an Ache reservation. Evol. Hum. Behav. 29: 305–318

Bogin B. 2009. Childhood, adolescence, and longevity: A multilevel model of the evolution of reserve capacity in human life history. Am J Hum Biol. 21(4):567-77

Bogin B, Bragg J, Kuzawa C. 2014. Humans are not cooperative breeders but practice biocultural reproduction.  Ann Hum Biol. 41(4):368-80.

Cooper K and Stewart K. 2020. Does Household Income Affect children’s Outcomes? A Systematic Review of the Evidence. Child Indicators Research:

Crittenden A and Marlowe F. 2008. Allomaternal Care among the Hadza of Tanzania. Human Nature: An Interdisciplinary Biosocial Perspective 19(3): 249-262

Hill K and Hurtado AM. 2009. Cooperative breeding in South American hunter–gatherers. Proc. R. Soc. B 276 (1674): 3863-3870.

Konner M.  2010. The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind, Harvard University Press.

Koster J. 2011. Interhousehold meat sharing among Mayangna and Miskito horticulturalists in Nicaragua. Hum Nat. 22(4):394-415.

Kramer KL. 2010. Cooperative Breeding and its Significance to the Demographic Success of Humans. Annual Review of Anthropology 39: 417-436

Kramer KL and Veile A. 2018. Infant allocare in traditional societies. Physiology and Behavior 193(Pt A): 117-126

Marlowe F. 2010. The Hadza. Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Martin JS, Ringen EJ, Duda P, and Jaeggi AV. 2020. Harsh environments promote alloparental care across human societies.  Proc Biol Sci. 287(1933):20200758.

McLaughlin M and  Rank MR. Estimating the Economic Cost of Childhood Poverty in the United States Social Work Research  42(2): 73–83.

Page AE, Thomas MG, Smith D, Dyble M, Viguier S, Chaudhary N, Salali GD, Thompson J, Mace R, Migliano AB. 2019. Testing adaptive hypotheses of alloparenting in Agta foragers. Nat Hum Behav. 3(11):1154-1163.

Schoeppe S, Duncan MJ, Badland HM, Alley S, Williams S, Rebar AL, Vandelanotte C. 2015. Socio-demographic factors and neighbourhood social cohesion influence adults’ willingness to grant children greater independent mobility: A cross-sectional study. BMC Public Health. 15:690.

Sear R, Mace R. 2008. Who keeps children alive: a review of the effects of kin on child survival. Evol Hum Behav 29:1–18.

Content last modified 3/17/2021

Title image of Hadza women with child by Papa Bravo / shutterstock

Image of women digging up tubers near Lake Eyasi by federico neri / shutterstock

Image of mother walking in the Kalahari bush with an infant on her back cropped from a photo by romitasromala / istock 

Image of Huaorani mother (with red paint) holding infant cropped from a photo by Zaruba Ondrej / shutterstock

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