The Wisdom of Grandparents
Children are safer in cars driven by grandparents, according to a recent Care2.com post by Shannon M. According to Rachel Caspari, an anthropologist at Central Michigan University, recent examinations of fossil teeth show that grandparents were very rare in ancient populations, such as the australopithecines and the Neandertals. Grandparents first became common about 30,000 years ago and this “surge in the number of seniors” had two important consequences, as Caspari writes in Scientific American:
- it was a “driving force for the explosion of new tool types and art forms that occurred in Europe at around the same time”
- it may also “how modern humans outcompeted archaic groups such as the Neandertals”
Anthropologist Kristen Hawkes of the University of Utah has studied the Hadza hunter-gatherers of Tanzania and argues that grandmothers in particular played a vital role in the rise of Homo sapiens. According the Guardian:
Hawkes argues that when our apeman ancestors were evolving in Africa, females normally died at child-bearing age. Then an occasional female lived a little longer, and would have helped her daughters, when they had their own children, to dig and forage for food. These grandmother-mother pairings thrived, so their genes for longevity would have been passed on. In this way, the slow rise of the senior citizens began.
Caspari has extended the idea to include grandfathers too. From analyzing teeth from fossils from different periods of evolution (early australopithecine apemen, Neanderthals and the first Homo sapiens to reach Europe), she’s found that the numbers of those aged 30 or over gradually increased:
“For every 10 young Neanderthals who died between the ages of 10 and 30, there were only four older adults who survived past the age of 30,” Caspari states. But for every 10 young adult members of Homo sapiens who died, there were 20 who had reached 30 or older, a significant increase. “The conclusion was inescapable: adult survival soared very late in human evolution,” Caspari states.
It is unclear why so many more Homo sapiens began to live longer. Improvements in food-gathering could have been involved, suggested Professor Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum.
Whatever the reason, the effect would have been profound, he stressed. Elders pass on knowledge of poisonous food, the location of water supplies and important skills such as tool-making. “Older people are important in establishing kinships,” added Stringer, author of the recently published The Origin of Our Species.
Many of us can attest to the necessary role grandparents have played in the lives of children, in caregiving roles — in taking care of children so parents can work; in passing on, indeed, knowledge and skills; in being a “back-up” and support for parents. My own parents lives 3000 miles away from us, in California, but have still always played a vital role in the life of our 14-year-old son Charlie. I have many deep memories of my grandparents (all of whom are now deceased); growing up, we saw my father’s parents at least a couple of times a week. Yeh Yeh (Cantonese for “paternal grandfather”) came to the US with nothing and became a respected grocery store owner and figure in Oakland’s Chinatown. The sight of him sitting in the big black chair in our suburban living room, a relaxed smile on his face as he looked around him at the many members of his family remains fixed in my mind. He was proud of what he’d accomplished as a businessman, for sure, but I know he was proudest of all of us and of being able to pass on something to his family.
In a time when programs for seniors are too often seen as expendable, Caspari’s findings attest to why we should be valuing and supporting them — we wouldn’t be here today without our elders.
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Photo by Salam Viji