Humans stand out among primates and other mammals in reaching adult-level foraging skills very late in development, well after the onset of reproduction. The aim of this paper is to place this unusual human skill development into a broader comparative context. Among birds and mammals in general, duration of immaturity, indexed by age at first reproduction (AFR), and adult brain size have undergone correlated evolution. This pattern is consistent with two causal processes: AFR is either limited by the time needed to learn adult-level skills (needing to learn) or by the energy needed to grow brain and body to full size (energetic constraints). We tested predictions arising from these two hypotheses with data retrieved from the published literature for 57 mammal and bird species. First, most mammals reach adult-level foraging skills well before the developmental period is completed, implying that energy constraints determine the age at first reproduction, whereas most birds reach adult-level foraging skills around the time of maturity, suggesting time needed for skill acquisition determines the onset of reproduction. Second, within mammals we found that with increasing niche complexity, the age of adult-level skill competence moves closer to the age at first reproduction. Third, when looking at how adult-level skills can be reached later, we found that gregariousness, slow conservative development and post-weaning provisioning allow mammals to reach their skills later. Finally, in species with intense sharing of resources (such as cooperative hunters) competence in foraging skills may even reach peak values after age of first reproduction. We conclude that the human pattern of skill acquisition could arise because our hominin ancestors added cooperative breeding and hunting to the slow development they had as great apes with increasingly complex niches. This result provides a broad biological foundation for the embodied capital model.
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