The Wisdom of Grandparents


Children are safer in cars driven by grandparents, according to a recent 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.


Related Care2 Coverage

Kids Are Safer In The Car When Grandma Drives

Ancient Male Hominids Stayed At Home While Females Wandered

Scientists Find Previously Undiscovered Primate Fossil In Texas

My Grandparents Were Illegal ‘Alien Invaders’

Photo by Salam Viji


Norma V.
Norma Villarreal6 years ago

Celebrate the grandparents who can share a wealth of knowledge!

Debbie Wasko
Past Member 6 years ago

Another example of why it takes most of one'slife to even come close to getting it right. Many cultures hold their elders in great esteem and respect their wisdom ... not ours, of course. Just use them up and spit them out when worn down to the knub.

Rosemary G.
Rosemary G6 years ago

I have been very fortunate to have been able to spend a lot of valuable time wtih my grandmother and great grandfather who taught me how to read and so many important things of life at the age of four and who was the love of my life..I could do no wrong with him. He passed away when I was eight and I don't think I have ever recovered.

K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Shalvah Landy
Past Member 6 years ago

Since my parents immigrated when I was 8 years old, taking us a continent away from grandparents, I grew up always envying friends who had their grandparents close by.

Jarno L.
Jarno Lahtinen6 years ago

My grandmother babysat me and my sister on occasion to give my parents time of their own - sometimes when she cooked for her and my grandfather, she'd cook extra for her kids families. She's 85 years old now, and doesn't have the energy to do that much anymore, even though she still has a desire to - she loves her grankids. These days I drop in now and then and help her with keeping her back yard looking good, washing her windows, and other chores, and since I've lately gotten into cooking myself, I've now even cooked for her sometimes. Feels nice to give back a little. :)

I can imagine that grandparents have been a very good evolutionary advantage to have - especially in the kinds of small, tight knitted tribes that our ancestors have lived in for most of our history. We should value our grandparents, and learn from their life experience.

Patricia Y.
Patricia Y6 years ago

i love my grandparents. They are the best.

Hailey R.

My grandmother was the most amazing woman. I hope one day ill be half the grandmother she was.

Mrs Shakespeare
Mrs Shakespeare6 years ago

I love my grandma and I agree that they are great and can be so helpful, but they are not perfect, you know? So even if you absolutely adore and trust your parents, keep an eye on how they interact with your child and what do they teach him/her.
I'm not bashing them; its just the truth :/

Jo Asprec
Jo Asprec6 years ago

I am fortunate to have spent summers with my grandparents when I was a child. Thanks for sharing this article.