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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Human Complex Systems




In recent decades, fieldwork with 20th century hunter-gatherers has led to a “paradigm shift” away from emphasis on child care by the mother alone, toward alloparental care in which parents and their children benefit from help provided by children’s older siblings, mother’s siblings, mother’s mother and more distantly related or unrelated others. This paper emphasizes the importance of alloparental care among the Alyawarra-speaking people of Central Australia in 1971-72. It reports on 1439 numerically coded behavioral observations of infant and child carrying, in combination with extensive kinship, genealogical, demographic and census data that reveal previously undetected patterns in child care, including the extreme rarity of carrying by parents (2.85% of carries by mothers, 0.28% by fathers). I suggest that Alyawarra infants and children were treated as part of the Commons, deeply analogous to all shared resources including kangaroos, waterholes and sacred sites. Everyone ultimately benefited from the birth of a child and its later contributions to the welfare of all, so virtually everyone was responsible for participating in its care. I interpret these data in terms of kin selection, reciprocal altruism, mutual aid and other survival strategies that precluded the Tragedy of the Commons in the harsh and capricious environment of the Central Australian desert. 

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