Fosterage as a System of Dispersed Cooperative Breeding: Evidence from the Himba

Brooke A. Scelza, Joan Silk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations

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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)448-464
Number of pages17
JournalHuman Nature
Volume25
Issue number4
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 6 2014

Keywords

  • Child nutrition
  • Cooperative breeding
  • Fosterage
  • Himba

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science

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