Grandparents may have been an evolutionary boon

Posted on Friday, September 20th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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About 30,000 years ago, humans started living past the age of 30 at a rate never before seen. Laura Helmeth, writing at Slate about the findings of a study by Rachel Caspari, recently reported that cultural shifts at this point in human history allowed humans to live long enough to become grandparents and that right around this time, human population and culture began to expand and flourish in unprecedented ways, growing larger than ever before, moving into new environments and incorporating art. Having an extra generation around to help raise children and to share a longer-term perspective seems to have given humanity a huge boost:

A lot of skills that allowed humans to take over the world take a lot of time and training to master, and they wouldn’t have been perfected or passed along without old people. “They can be great teachers,” Caspari says, “and they allow for more complex societies.” Old people made humans human.

Longer life is often cited as a benefit of human evolutionary and cultural adaptation, but this work makes the case that it also provided benefits, contributing to a positive feedback loop.

  • Mike Gabrieli

    So with this relative longevity comes an era of ‘those who can, do; those who can no longer, teach”, the wizened shared their wisdom. This prompts the need for these early ‘schools,’ the late Ice Age caves, in which wall paintings and etching were used to train the young in that nocturnal art— the sighting and hunting of prey— in appropriately light-deprived settings. Being able to train the children in hunting practices away from the natural dangers of an actual hunt would certainly have contributed twofold to this population boom and territorial expansion: improving the median proficiency while curtailing the mortality rate of fledgling hunters. That paleolithic cave art was primarily pedagogical has always seemed clear enough, this new information now makes the timing of their appearance infinitely more appreciable. Thank you!

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