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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Grandmother effect revisited

When I talked in my last post on gardening about how children absorb practical knowledge from their mothers and grandmothers, it reminded me of a lovely theory about this very thing called the Grandmother Effect. It is about prehistory, so the theory doesn’t have a lot of evidence to back it up, but it goes something like this: The reason human civilization began to flourish thousands of years ago was because people were living longer. For men it meant that they could still father children and carry on as a hunter and provider for them, but for women though, when they lived into their 40's, they didn’t have any more babies and young children to care for, so they had energy and time to spend helping with the care of their grandchildren.

Being a grandmother is a beautiful role - you have all of the joy of your young grandchildren and little of the work involved. And your grandchildren sense your love and concern for them (they do carry some of your precious genes) and that you have time to 'play' with them. Being together so much, grandmothers had time to teach their grandchildren all sorts of practical things, like how to find and gather food, make pots, cook, sew and practical techniques and shortcuts they had picked up. Even more important, they told stories of what had gone before and passed on the accumulated wisdom of their family and tribe.

But why in the first place did we, of all creatures, have such a long period of life after our reproductive system shut down? Evolution favours factors that improve the fitness of the species, so it is logical that the older women must have made some significant positive contribution. I figure it had a lot to do with the fact that we humans had language. Those talkative grandmothers enjoying their grandchildren must have made a far more important and far reaching contribution than they could have imagined – in all probability they were a major factor in the beginnings of human civilization.

Hey Grandmothers, put that feather in your cap and keep talking. Rie

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