Public Goods, Prestige, and Sharing

Nearly all societies share food beyond the household. Yet foods are not shared randomly: certain foods are more likely to be shared after acquisition than others. Typically such foods include the meat from large game animals or highly valued resources such as honey, while foods that come in rather small packages or are acquired with little variability tend to be rarely shared. Research in our lab is focused on the social benefits of resource exchange. We're particularly interested in the way that social network methods might illuminate differences in how and why people share food. For example, among Martu, hunters (both male and female) who acquired sand monitor lizards kept more for their families to eat after sharing distributions than did hunters who acquired kangaroo. But those who are more productive or skilled in sand monitor hunting share more of their catch, taking home no more than anyone else who went out hunting that day. While sand monitor hunting is more predictable, and rewards hunters more than kangaroo, it still is an important way to build social networks if a hunter can produce enough to share to many others. Kangaroo hunting, on the other hand provides few consumption benefits to the hunter, but much prestige because it allows hunters to give large shares of meat to many others.


Bliege Bird, R, and Power, E.A. (2015) Prosocial signaling and cooperation among Martu hunters. Evolution and Human Behavior 36: 389-397.

Jones J.H., Bliege Bird R., & Bird D.W. (2013) To kill a kangaroo: understanding the decision to pursue high-risk/high-gain resources. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 280: DOI: 20131210.

Bliege Bird, R., B. Scelza, D. Bird and E.A. Smith (2012) The hierarchy of virtue: mutualism, altruism, and signaling in Martu women’s cooperative hunting. Evolution and Human Behavior 33:64-78.

Bird, D.W. and Bliege Bird, R. (2010) Competing to be leaderless: food sharing and magnanimity among Martu Aborigines.  In: The Emergence of Leadership: Transitions in Decision-Making from Small-Scale to Middle Range Societies. Kantner, J. and K. Vaughn, eds, pp .21-49.  School of American Research Advanced Seminar.

Bliege Bird, R. and D. Bird(2008) Why women hunt: risk and contemporary foraging in a Western Desert Aboriginal community. Current Anthropology 49(4):655-693. 

Scelza, B. and Bliege Bird, R (2008) Group structure and female cooperative networks in Australia's Western Desert. Human Nature 19:231-248.

Bliege Bird, R. and Smith E.A. (2005) Signaling theory, strategic interaction, and symbolic capital. Current Anthropology 46(2):221-248.