The assumption that large mammal hunting and scavenging are economically advantageous to hominid foragers is examined in the light of data collected among the Hadza of northern Tanzania. Hadza hunters disregard small prey in favour of larger forms (mean adult mass greater than or equal to 40 kg). Here we report experimental data showing that hunters would reduce their mean rates if they included small animals in the array they target. Still, daily variance in large animal hunting returns is high, and the risk of failure correspondingly great, significantly greater than that associated with small game hunting and trapping. Sharing large kills reduces the risk of meatless days for big game hunters, and obviates the problem of storing large amounts of meat. It may be unavoidable if large carcasses cannot be defended economically against the demands of other consumers. If so, then large prey are common goods. A hunter may gain no consumption advantage from his own big game acquisition efforts. We use Hadza data to model this 'collective action' problem, and find that an exclusive focus on large game with extensive sharing is not the optimal strategy for hunters concerned with maximizing their own chances of eating meat. Other explanations for the emergence and persistence of this practice must be considered.