Adult Sex Ratios & Partner Scarcity among Hunter-Gatherers: Implications for Dispersal Patterns and the Evolution of Human Sociality

Small populations are susceptible to high genetic loads and random fluctuations in birth and death rates. While these selective forces can adversely affect their viability, small populations persist across taxa. Here, we investigate the resilience of small groups to demographic uncertainty, and specifically to fluctuations in adult sex ratio (ASR), partner availability and dispersal patterns. Using 25 years of demographic data for two Savannah Pumé groups of South American hunter–gatherers, we show that in small human populations: (i) ASRs fluctuate substantially from year to year, but do not consistently trend in a sex-biased direction; (ii) the primary driver of local variation in partner availability is stochasticity in the sex ratio at maturation and (iii) dispersal outside of the group is an important behavioural means to mediate locally constrained mating options. To then simulate conditions under which dispersal outside of the local group may have evolved, we develop two mathematical models. Model results predict that if the ASR is biased, the globally rarer sex should disperse. The model's utility is then evaluated by applying our empirical data to this central prediction. The results are consistent with the observed hunter–gatherer pattern of variable, non-sex-specific dispersal. Together, these findings offer an alternative explanation to resource provisioning for the evolution of traits central to human sociality (e.g. flexible dispersal, bilocal post-marital residence and cooperation across local groups). We argue that in small populations, looking outside of one's local group is necessary to find a mate and that, motivated by ASR imbalance, the alliances formed to facilitate the movement of partners are an important foundation for the human-typical pattern of network formation across local groups.This article is part of the themed issue ‘Adult sex ratios and reproductive decisions: a critical re-examination of sex differences in human and animal societies’.