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The Evolutionary Importance of Grandmothers

By Ashleigh Wilson on Thursday October 17th, 2019

The Gifts of Our Grannies

When she smiles, the lines in her face become epic narratives that trace the stories of generations that no book can replace. ― Curtis Tyrone Jones

When I look back on my fondest childhood memories, there are a few that always surface. Standing on a chair in the kitchen next to my Nana as she teaches me to make pikelets; I wait till her back is turned before slyly dunking my finger in the mixture. Watching avidly as she tells me tales that her grandmother shared with her. And excitedly showing her the latest issue of my weekly newspaper ‘The Daily Llama’ – she’s the biggest (and only) fan. 

When I was older and came to terms with the fact that ‘The Daily Llama’ was never going to be a success, I cherished long chats with Nana after school as I plonked myself on the carpet next to her rocking chair. She shared her wisdom, her humour, and her humility with me. Of course, all these things were vehicles for her unconditional love.

With both my parents working full-time, my grandparents played an important role in my upbringing. While not every family has this dynamic (there is no right or wrong), science is beginning to show that grandparents, and grandmothers in particular, have played a crucial role in human evolution and most importantly, how we connect with each other.

Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have been questioning the reason for women to go through menopause, a stage in life that we do not share with other primates. After all, wouldn’t it be better for the species if women were able to continue bearing children for the entirety of their lives? Men can procreate for as long as they can rise to the occasion.  

The ‘Grandmother Hypothesis’ argues that the role of grandmothers in society helps shape who we are. 

GrandmothersOur grandmothers help shape who we are.

The Grandmother Hypothesis

Kristen Hawkes, an anthropologist at the University of Utah, is the lead researcher who looked into this hypothesis in a study published in the Journal Proceedings of the Royal Society and says they found grandmothers have helped us develop an array of social capacities. This includes those that are “the foundation for the evolution of other distinctly human traits, including pair bonding, bigger brains, learning new skills and our tendency for cooperation.”

Young people need something stable to hang on to — a culture connection, a sense of their own past, a hope for their own future. Most of all, they need what grandparents can give them. —Jay Kesler

The study, which was undertaken with mathematical biologist Peter Kim and anthropologist James Coxworth, used computer simulations to see the effect of menopause on hypothetical primates. Spanning 60,000 years, the researchers made the hypothetical subjects evolve to live into their sixties and seventies (decades past their fertile years). Eventually, forty-three percent of the mature female primates were grandmothers.

Grannies for Survival

From a survival perspective, the researchers suggested that if a mother has help with multiple children, larger families become more viable. They found that grandmothers can assist families by acting as supplementary caregivers, and also help with the collection of food. 

However, the researchers also argued that the social relations which go along with grandmothering have created many uniquely human traits.

As other primates have only one child they are responsible for at any one time, the mother can dedicate her whole attention to that baby. However, humans often have multiple children. With many mums juggling crying babies, toddlers throwing tantrums, and hungry children all at once, help is sometimes necessary to keep family life running smoothly. Traditionally grandmothers, with their wisdom and parenting experience, have stepped up to this role and provided attention to older children while the mum looks after the baby. Evolving with this kind of support has provided humans with the opportunity to become more socially aware and connected with each other. 

 “Grandmothering gave us the kind of upbringing that made us more dependent on each other socially and prone to engage each other’s attention,” Hawkes says. 

SupportGrandmothers provide much-needed support within the family unit.

The study acknowledged that, of course, in the real world many mothers get help from other sources, such as fathers and older siblings. But grandmothers are unique in the sense that they have often, but not always, already been a mother. They are qualified for the job without the distractions of youth and the sometimes dominant hormonal drivers. 

Becoming a grandmother is wonderful. One moment you’re just a mother. The next you are all-wise and prehistoric. — Pam Brown

Indigenous Views of Grandmothers

This research sits alongside long respected indigenous views of elders and grandparents. Indigenous cultures around the world view elders as the cornerstones of society and family life. As the Australian Institute of Family Studies summarises, in Aboriginal culture, elderly family and community members are respected for a variety of reasons including “their narrative historical value, where testimonies about the Dreaming and daily community life help others to understand the practical aspects of life and society.” 

The very old and the very young have something in common that makes it right that they should be left alone together. Dawn and sunset see stars shining in a blue sky. ― Elizabeth Goudge

I’m incredibly grateful that growing up, I was able to form strong bonds with my grandparents and create cherished memories with them. Now when I sit with my Nana, who is mostly housebound, it is me who tells the tales – she enjoys the insight into my life and the modern world which still seems foreign to her. Yet, I know it is her wisdom, love, and dedication that made me into the woman I am today. She is running through my veins, my neural pathways, and dances in the chambers of my heart. I feel blessed to be able to teach that intimate and unique choreography to my children when they arrive. My greatest wish would be for my grandmother to become a great-grandmother …  together with my mother, we can all teach the nostalgic dances of yesteryear to our children of today. 

~

Have you cherished memories with grandparents or other older caregivers? Perhaps you are a grandparent yourself? We would love to hear your stories and insights in the comments below.  

Much Love,

Team UPLIFT 

How do you feel about this article? Join the conversation.

 

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14 Responses to The Evolutionary Importance of Grandmothers

  1. We are genetically and epigenetically linked to these wonderful people. Find and share their stories before they are no longer there. You may need to know why you are as you are, after they have gone.
    Illness information can help you to recent research your life.

  2. I am blessed with two amazing grandmothers, one of whom is still around and a wonderful great grandmother to my children. Both my grandmothers were examples to me of strong women who raised another generation of strong women and who taught me about family, generosity and compassion for others. One of my most treasured possessions is linen and lace table cloth my paternal grandmother gave me when I turned 40, it was her 21st birthday gift from her grandmother and still had the card her grandmother wrote her. It is a cherished dream to one day pass this on to my own granddaughter. My grandmothers have enriched my life in so many ways.

  3. My Nana was my mentor and my inspiration for how I treat and love my eight grandchildren. She had six grandchildren and we have often talked of how we each felt we were her favorite. She always greeted us by saying “oh, my dear hearts”. She was the dear heart. Her cooking was sublime and her house with a place of intrigue and shelter. She came and took care of me and my first baby daughter, as my Mom was working and couldn’t do it. What lovely memories of her I have and I cherish them to this day. I think our kids desperately need family rituals and special occasions to look back on and I have made that my goal as a grandmother. When they were little I had a basket of instruments and we paraded around the house every time they were here at my house and they were about to leave. Every year I have planned and implemented a family vacation with all the grands, we have a “last day of school” dinner, where we all cook together and they talk about their year, and we have random breakfasts out, where they all talk and I listen. And most importantly, I have been the impetus for us volunteering with the homeless in our area. Some like it, some don’t so much, but they have all been exposed to the enormous need out there. I am so blessed and grateful for her inspiration and my oportunity to now be a grandmother and pass it on.

    • Lynda – Wow sounds like both your Nana and yourself have been a blessing for your family. I Hope I can be a grandmother like you one day! Ashleigh from Team UPLIFT.

  4. I am a nanny and the grandchildren live upstairs .. I have gained so much love and joy in my life by spending time with the children .. the boy is six and the girl is one… and I believe they have learned much from my company also .. sometimes it is hard and tiring and when I feel like I’m not getting any younger grand parenting lifts my spirit and I see the circle of life in action

    • Thank you so much for sharing Fiana – it sounds like a special and beautiful bond you have with your grandchildren. Sending love to you and them, Team UPLIFT.

  5. I had a very special bond with my paternal Grandma. I had many reminders from other family members that I was a bother, a screw-up and a clutz, but In Grandma’s eyes I was just fine and she loved me unconditionally. She had twenty grandchildren, but I secretly felt that I was her favorite. Later, as an adult talking with cousins and my brother and sister, I discovered each of them had felt that they were Grandma’s favorite Grandchild.

    • You’re grandmother sounds like a wonderful person. Thank you so much for sharing with us. Sending love your way, Team UPLIFT.

  6. I only had my paternal grandmother until I was 8. My mum divorced then and I wasn’t allowed to see them. I remember shelling peas with her and hunting for snails in the garden so she could make escargot for my dad. She was French and had a heavy accent. Her cooking was amazing and I think my mum was jealous. I still miss her. My other grandmother wasn’t my mum’s mother, but she was the only grandmother I knew on that side. She cooked Southern dishes and every year we were in the kitchen canning and preserving.

  7. I was blessed with my children’s grandmother for a very short time but my whole being knows what we missed
    Why do humans only miss what is gone I would give my all to have her back for my children yes but Aldo for me

  8. My grandmother was my best friend. She was kind and giving, smart and creative, loved my mother, her daughter, and therefore me, just because. She read the newspaper front to back, and with a 6th grade education, marveled at my education, my mind, my smarts. She gave affection while cook in, mending, or teaching me to crochet or do needlework. She told us stories of her parents’ lives in Europe and their difficult times in the states as well as her in-laws’ lives in the mining town in PA before settling in Western New York. She lived with my mother toward the end of her life and took phone messages for us all, was ready with the weather report, or the local and national news from tv. She taught by example and is still loved, still with us years after her death at 99.

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