Food Sharing: Human Evolution and Achieving Food Security for All

Every holiday season, loved ones gather and share food through traditions that date back millennia. And every year, tens of millions of Americans receive food shared with them through food banks and food assistance charities. Globally, many more millions are lifted out of hunger through transnational generosity. This behavior, the sharing of food with kin and strangers alike, is common across all populations around the world. However, it is utterly unique across the animal kingdom; and, perhaps more surprisingly, its development is central to the evolution of the human species itself.

Though it is true that many animals “share” food, none share in the ways that humans do. The proclivity, or simply the capacity, to share food and resources is one of many characteristics that set humans apart from other animals. Importantly, food sharing is also a key socioecological characteristic that helped facilitate the evolution and co-evolution of many of the behavioral, physiological, and psychological adaptations that have come to define the human species today.

Somewhere between 2.5 and 1.5 million years ago, hunting and gathering emerged as a novel subsistence strategy among hominins (i.e., ancient human ancestors). The hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which is still practiced today by communities like the Hadza of Tanzania and Aché of Paraguay, marked a major transition in the evolutionary history of the human lineage, one which would not be supplanted until the first agricultural revolution about 12,000 years ago. However, the highly energy-intensive (i.e., kilocalories/day) and skill-dependent hunter-gatherer mode of food acquisition could not and did not evolve in a vacuum. Almost certainly prior to the development of hunting and gathering, food sharing and cooperation were established as key behavioral adaptations among populations of early Pleistocene hominins, and exposed a novel feeding niche from which the modern human lineage arose.

Physiologically, humans distinguish themselves from their closest living relative, the great apes, with relatively larger brains, bigger babies, extended childhoods, increased fertility, and longer lives. To afford these energetically expensive characteristics, humans also co-evolved increased metabolic rates. Enlarged metabolic energy budgets are dangerous, however, because it increases the risk of caloric shortfalls and death due to starvation. It is here that food sharing and the cooperative production of the hunter-gatherer strategy play a vital role. Without intergenerational and inter-familial sharing of high-quality foods, the long periods of childhood dependence and learning would likely be impossible, and increased fertility rates and expensive brains unsustainable. Evolutionarily, cooperative food sharing behaviors that extended beyond mothers and young offspring or kin groups provided populations with food security, buffering against energy shortfalls, relaxing metabolic constraints, and broadening socioecological possibility.

Norman Borlaug, known widely as the father of the Green Revolution, famously stated, “There is no more essential commodity than food. Without food, people perish, social and political organizations disintegrate, and civilizations collapse.” Indeed, without the evolution of widespread food sharing, such social and political organizations may never have come to exist at all. Within emergent communities that coalesced around hunting and gathering, food sharing and cooperative foraging helped to establish the conditions from which many human psychological adaptations developed. Altruism, reciprocity, tolerance, and social cohesion are all related to the shared human goal of food security that arose across communities some 2 million years ago. Today, shaped by culture, ecology, and a shared history, these same motivations suffuse the goals and actions of the domestic and international programs still seeking food security for all.

Zane Swanson is a fellow with the Global Food and Water Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. 

Jon B. Alterman
Fellow, Global Food and Water Security Program