Foraging Theory And Cooperation

Granting all the above, applying foraging theory to archaeological assemblages is made much more complicated from a theoretical standpoint if those assemblages represent situations where individuals may benefit through cooperation by pooling costs and splitting profits (Winterhalder 1986). Cooperation is common among foragers, but awkward in the premise of self-interest on which OFT and HBE theory more generally rests. Economic self-interest only permits cooperation that produces, for individuals, greater benefits with less risk than doing something else—not cooperating. Cooperating, however, seldom nets as much as "cheating,"—contributing less than a full share of the costs while insisting on a full share of the benefits (Bettinger 1991b). Then, the temptation to cheat, and the fear that others will cheat enough to reduce the split, may prevent cooperation altogether. This "prisoner's dilemma" is the crux of the tragedy of the commons (Hardin 1968), where cooperation in resource conservation is prevented because individuals find it too tempting to let others conserve while they continue to harvest. Self-interested individuals should only "cooperate" when their payoff is so large that losses to cheating do not matter. The payoffs of hunter-gatherer cooperation, however, likely fall short of that, especially in large-scale efforts (e.g., Waterman and Kroeber 1938), suggesting it is motivated by something other than economic self-interest (Boyd and Richerson 1988), which might lead to behaviors, hence archaeological assemblages potentially at odds with the predictions of foraging theory.

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