Thursday, June 26, 2008

ideaCity and The Grandmother Hypothesis

What’s ideaCity? And the Grandmother Hypothesis? First, if you’ve never heard of ideaCity it’s a yearly coming together of think tankers from around the world hosted by Moses Znaimer of Toronto. This three day symposium is big on brains. Mostly scientists. How did I get involved? Well, I’ve been writing and speaking about the Grandmother Hypothesis, which fit in with one section of the symposium that dealt with aging. This must have sounded scientific to somebody so I was invited to go to Toronto and speak to this subject which I did last week end. And the Grandmother Hypothesis was a big hit. Especially with the women.

The Grandmother Hypothesis goes this way: Remember how we’ve all been taught that man the hunter fed his wife and children even in the earliest hunter-gatherer societies? Well, it doesn’t appear to be so. The truth of the matter, according to current reading of anthropology, is that men probably didn’t even know which particular children were theirs, if any. And making a kill of any wild animal was a dicey thing in those days. Often the men didn’t bring anything back to the clan. And when they did it was shared with the clan as a whole. So the daily feeding of children which centered on gathering wild tubers and berries and bird’s eggs, was left to the women.

The anthropologists who first brought this theory forward looked at calorie requirements. They calculated how many calories a young early hunter gather woman needed per day and concluded that this young woman could gather enough calories to feed herself, and could feed herself if she became pregnant, and even with a suckling infant manage to feed herself. But when the infant became a toddler and the young woman found herself pregnant again she could not feed herself, a baby, and an older child. She had to have help. Enter Granma


Medical scientists, people who study the human body and evolution, still being mostly male, have long wondered about human menopause. What was it for, they wondered? It had to be important, because it was unique among the animal kingdom and every human woman who lived long enough had menopause. And no other animal lived so very long after the reproductive process was finished. In all other animals the individual female died as her reproduction process stopped. The scientists largely decided that menopause must be a relative new thing in woman because they thought in the past human females also died when they stopped being reproductive.

Not so, we are told by the Grandmother Hypothesis. In fact, it was because of the menopause that grandmothers, still well and hearty, and no longer being burdened with infants of their own, could turn their attention to their daughter’s and nieces’ and cousins’ older children and help provide the calories needed to bring them to adulthood. The menopause was the gift nature gave to the human species that enabled our species to multiply and spread out over the globe. In fact, the entire development and evolution of Homo sapiens has turned over the wheel of grandmothers. Now, isn’t that the darndest thing?

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