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John Ziker publishes paper on the history of human foraging

Portrait of John Ziker

Anthropology professor and department chair John Ziker recently published a co-authored paper on human foraging in the journal Science Advances, a peer-reviewed, multidisciplinary, open-access scientific journal established in 2015 and published by American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The paper is titled, “The life history of human foraging: Cross-cultural and individual variation.”

Human lifeways depend on relatively unique life history patterns, complex production skills and extensive sociality. Foraging is a type of production that goes back to humans’ earliest ancestors and continues today in the search for wild, edible plants, as well as hunting and fishing. It takes time to gain complex foraging skills. Until someone can feed themselves, they depend on others. When one gets good, they feed others in their community.

Anthropological studies of human foraging in non-Western societies demonstrate that individuals ability to be productive as foragers extends into advanced ages. But just when do hunters begin to produce more than they consume, and how long do people remain productive hunters cross-culturally?

This open-access paper develops formal models of hunters’ increases and declines in production skill from approximately 23,000 hunting records generated by more than 1,800 individuals at 40 locations around the globe. Ziker’s research in northern Siberia provides data for one of these locations. As it turns out, productivity increases dramatically in youth and peaks in the middle of the third decade. Across these diverse cultures, foragers maintain relatively high productivity into the sixth or seventh decade.

While there is substantial variation both among individuals and across sites in the exact timing, the model demonstrates a consistent pattern in life history. Within study sites, the paper finds that variation among individuals depends more on heterogeneity in rates of decline than in rates of increase in productivity.

This paper demonstrates the important economic role of middle age and elderly people across 40 non-Western societies. It also has implications for understanding the benefits of feeling productive in advanced age, as well as the value of being able to train and retrain with new skills across the lifespan.