Katie Demps Work on Cooperation Among Hunter-Gatherers

We’ve all heard that too many chefs spoil the broth. But we also believe that many hands make light work. The truth, it seems, lies somewhere in between. Success relies on how many people it takes to get the job done, what skills each participant brings to the table and how the labor is divided.

These issues are at the heart of research by assistant professor of anthropology Kathryn Demps and several colleagues on how hunter-gatherers parse out tasks in order to efficiently accumulate resources, such as honey. Results were published in the journal Philosophical Transactions B in an article titled “Skills, division of labour and economies of scale among Amazonian hunters and South Indian honey collectors.”

DisplayHoney400x500Honey is in great demand in India and fetches a high price, but it takes a lot of skill to harvest it, including scaling tall trees, making smoky torches from sticks wrapped in green leaves, cutting off the honeycomb while balancing on a high branch, coaxing the queen to a new hive, calming a troubled colony, and more.

“This research is about how people function in groups,” Demps said. “Humans are unique in that we are so cooperative. It’s the secret to our success as a species and how we expanded out of the rainforest.”

By foraging cooperatively, our ancestors learned they could go after bigger game and obtain higher quality food sources (such as honey). They also benefited from sharing food during shortages, exchanging seeds and labor, and agreeing on principles of conduct, such as not stealing each other’s crops.

Those lessons continue to apply across cultures today. Among the, tribe of South India, one of two hunter-gatherer societies included in this study, getting the right mix in a foraging group is vital to success. Not only is it important to include all the necessary skills, but also a mix of experienced elders who can no longer climb trees but have valuable ritual knowledge, and nimble young boys with plenty of enthusiasm but in need of coaching.


A tree with honeycombs from the giant Asian honeybee Apis dorsata.

“Finding the right size for a group is tricky and comes down to the type of bee creating the honeycomb and economies of scale,” said Demps.

Different types of bees produce varying quality and quantity of honey. Honey from the world’s largest bee, the giant Asian honeybee Apis dorsata, is the most difficult to harvest (due to A. sorsata’s sting and propensity to build nests high off the ground) and thus requires the most diverse skills.

It’s also the most lucrative. A single nest can produce 10-20 pounds of honey, and a large tree can sometimes contain several nests. Treasured for its medicinal properties, it commands a high price in the market and is thus worth the time and risk to collect — a task made much easier with a large group of experienced men.

Smaller bees with easier-to-reach honeycombs provide opportunities for younger males to learn necessary skills, while stingless bees are often the responsibility of women and young girls. Cultural norms dictate that this group does not accompany men into the forest, nor do they climb trees.

Demps hopes to return to India in 2017 to follow up with some of the children she first met in 2009 and see how things have changed with time.

Katie Demp interviews Jenu Kuruba men about honey collecting.

Katie Demp interviews Jenu Kuruba men about honey collecting.

“One of the villages I studied now has electricity, and the kids love to watch TV,” she said, wondering how might that affect the traditional order of things. “By talking to the same families, I can get some good longitudinal data.”

This research recently was featured in a story in the New York Times titled “Nothing Simple About Hunter-Gatherer Societies.” Co-researchers include Paul Hooper, Emory University; Michael Gurven, University of California, Santa Barbara; Drew Gerkey, Oregon State University; and Hillard Kaplan, University of New Mexico.