Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Santa Barbara

UC Santa Barbara Previously Published Works bannerUC Santa Barbara

Human uniqueness? Life history diversity among small-scale societies and chimpanzees.



Humans life histories have been described as "slow", patterned by slow growth, delayed maturity, and long life span. While it is known that human life history diverged from that of a recent common chimpanzee-human ancestor some ~4-8 mya, it is unclear how selection pressures led to these distinct traits. To provide insight, we compare wild chimpanzees and human subsistence societies in order to identify the age-specific vital rates that best explain fitness variation, selection pressures and species divergence.


We employ Life Table Response Experiments to quantify vital rate contributions to population growth rate differences. Although widespread in ecology, these methods have not been applied to human populations or to inform differences between humans and chimpanzees. We also estimate correlations between vital rate elasticities and life history traits to investigate differences in selection pressures and test several predictions based on life history theory.


Chimpanzees' earlier maturity and higher adult mortality drive species differences in population growth, whereas infant mortality and fertility variation explain differences between human populations. Human fitness is decoupled from longevity by postreproductive survival, while chimpanzees forfeit higher potential lifetime fertility due to adult mortality attrition. Infant survival is often lower among humans, but lost fitness is recouped via short birth spacing and high peak fertility, thereby reducing selection on infant survival. Lastly, longevity and delayed maturity reduce selection on child survival, but among humans, recruitment selection is unexpectedly highest in longer-lived populations, which are also faster-growing due to high fertility.


Humans differ from chimpanzees more because of delayed maturity and lower adult mortality than from differences in juvenile mortality or fertility. In both species, high child mortality reflects bet-hedging costs of quality/quantity tradeoffs borne by offspring, with high and variable child mortality likely regulating human population growth over evolutionary history. Positive correlations between survival and fertility among human subsistence populations leads to selection pressures in human subsistence societies that differ from those in modern populations undergoing demographic transition.

Many UC-authored scholarly publications are freely available on this site because of the UC's open access policies. Let us know how this access is important for you.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View