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In foraging and other productive activities, individuals make choices regarding whether and with whom to cooperate, and in what capacities. The size and composition of cooperative groups can be understood as a self-organized outcome of these choices, which are made under local ecological and social constraints. This article describes a theoretical framework for explaining the size and composition of foraging groups based on three principles: (1) the sexual division of labor; (2) the intergenerational division of labor; and (3) economies of scale in production. We test predictions from the theory with data from two field contexts: Tsimane' game hunters of lowland Bolivia, and Jenu Kuruba honey collectors of South India. In each case, we estimate the impacts of group size and individual group members’ effort on group success. We characterize differences in the skill requirements of different foraging activities, and show that individuals participate more frequently in activities in which they are more efficient. We evaluate returns to scale across different resource types, and observe higher returns at larger group sizes in foraging activities (such as hunting large game) that benefit from coordinated and complementary roles. These results inform us that the foraging group size and composition are guided by the motivated choice of individuals on the basis of relative efficiency, benefits of cooperation, opportunity costs, and other social considerations.

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This is an author-produced, peer-reviewed version of this article. The final, definitive version of this document can be found online at Philosophical Transactions B, published by The Royal Society Publishing. Copyright restrictions may apply. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0008.

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