Turtle hunting and tombstone opening: Public generosity as costly signaling

Eric Alden Smith, Rebecca L. Bliege Bird

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

346 Scopus citations


Costly signaling theory (CST) offers an explanation of generosity and collective action that contrasts sharply with explanations based on conditional reciprocity. This makes it particularly relevant to situations involving widespread unconditional provisioning of collective goods. We provide a preliminary application of CST to ethnographic data on turtle hunting and public feasting among the Meriam of Torres Strait, Australia. Turtle hunting appears to meet the key conditions specified in CST: it is (1) an honest signal of underlying abilities such as strength, risk-taking, skill, and leadership; (2) costly in ways not subject to reciprocation; (3) an effective means of broadcasting signals, since the collective good (a feast) attracts a large audience; and (4) seems to provide benefits to signalers (turtle hunters) as well as recipients (audience). We conclude with some suggestions as to the broader implications of this research, and the costly signaling paradigm in general, for understanding collective action and generosity in human social groups.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)245-261
Number of pages17
JournalEvolution and Human Behavior
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2000

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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