For most of human history hunting has been the primary economic activity of men. Hunted animals are valued for their food energy and nutrients, however, hunting is associated with a high risk of failure. Additionally, large animals cannot be consumed…
For most of human history hunting has been the primary economic activity of men. Hunted animals are valued for their food energy and nutrients, however, hunting is associated with a high risk of failure. Additionally, large animals cannot be consumed entirely by the nuclear family, so much of the harvest may be shared to others. This has led some researchers to ask why men hunt large and difficult game. The “costly signaling” and “show-off” hypotheses propose that large prey are hunted because the difficulty of finding and killing them is a reliable costly signal of the phenotypic quality of the hunter.
These hypotheses were tested using original interview data from Aché (hunter gatherer; n=52, age range 50-76, 46% female) and Tsimané (horticulturalist; n=40, age range 15-77, 45% female) informants. Ranking tasks and paired comparison tasks were used to determine the association between the costs of killing an animal and its value as a signal of hunter phenotypic quality for attracting mates and allies. Additional tasks compared individual large animals to groups of smaller animals to determine whether assessments of hunters’ phenotypes and preferred status were more impacted by the signal value of the species or by the weight and number of animals killed.
Aché informants perceived hunters who killed larger or harder to kill animals as having greater provisioning ability, strength, fighting ability, and disease susceptibility, and preferred them as mates and allies. Tsimané informants held a similar preference for hunters who killed large game, but not for hunters targeting hard to kill species. When total biomass harvested was controlled, both populations considered harvesting more animals in a given time period to be a better signal of preferred phenotypes than killing a single large and impressive species. Male and female informants both preferred hunters who consistently brought back small game over hunters who sometimes killed large animals and sometimes killed nothing. No evidence was found that hunters should forgo overall food return rates in order to signal phenotypic qualities by specializing on large game. Nutrient provisioning rather than costly phenotypic signaling was the strategy preferred by potential mates and allies.