Apes reciprocate food positively and negatively

Avi Benozio*, Bailey R. House, Michael Tomasello

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Reciprocal food exchange is widespread in human societies but not among great apes, who may view food mainly as a target for competition. Understanding the similarities and differences between great apes' and humans' willingness to exchange food is important for our models regarding the origins of uniquely human forms of cooperation. Here, we demonstrate in-kind food exchanges in experimental settings with great apes for the first time. The initial sample consisted of 13 chimpanzees and 5 bonobos in the control phases, and the test phases included 10 chimpanzees and 2 bonobos, compared with a sample of 48 human children aged 4 years. First, we replicated prior findings showing no spontaneous food exchanges in great apes. Second, we discovered that when apes believe that conspecifics have 'intentionally' transferred food to them, positive reciprocal food exchanges (food-for-food) are not only possible but reach the same levels as in young children (approx. 75-80%). Third, we found that great apes engage in negative reciprocal food exchanges (no-food for no-food) but to a lower extent than children. This provides evidence for reciprocal food exchange in great apes in experimental settings and suggests that while a potential mechanism of fostering cooperation (via positive reciprocal exchanges) may be shared across species, a stabilizing mechanism (via negative reciprocity) is not.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number20222541
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1998
StatePublished - 10 May 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 The Author(s).


  • chimpanzees
  • cooperation
  • prosociality
  • reciprocity


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