Thanks to Grandmothers, Humans Live Longer
New findings support the "grandmother hypothesis," which says humans evolved to have longer lifespans than apes because grandmothers helped provide food and child care.
By Jaimie Dalessio Clayton
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WEDNESDAY, Oct. 24, 2012— Grandmothers play an important role in human evolution, according to a long-standing theory that support in the feeding and caring for grandchildren helped women live decades beyond menopause.
New research adds mathematical support to this idea, known as the "grandmother hypothesis."
Anthropologist Kristen Hawkes, PhD, of the University of Utah, has studied the "grandmother hypothesis" since the 1980s, and she and two other anthropologists formally proposed it in 1997. Her most recent study used computer simulations to find out if grandmothering alone, without other evolutionary factors, could trigger similar change in ape-like life histories.
"If you start with a life history like the one we see in great apes — and then you add grandmothering, what happens?" Dr. Hawkes asked in a release from the University of Utah.
The study, published this week in the British journalProceedings of the Royal Society B, found that with just a little bit of grandmothering, female chimpanzees, which only live into their 30s or 40s, can evolve to the length of a human lifespan within 24,000 to 60,000 years.
All primates and mammals, except humans, collect their own food after weaning. The "grandmother hypothesis" stems from environmental changes that took place as humans evolved. Newly weaned infants couldn't break open nuts or dig up food. But grandmothers could.
By helping to feed their grandchildren — gathering and preparing food — after the youngsters had been weaned from their mothers, grandmothers freed up their daughters' time to have more children, more often, according to the hypothesis.
Primates who stayed close to food sources that newly weaned offspring could collect on their own, "are our great ape cousins," Hawkes said in the University of Utah release.
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