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Photo: Photobucket at Psychology Today
Hadza grandmother in Northern Tanzania. Hazda grandmothers’ labor and care is correlated with better nutritional status and survival rates in Hadza children. Anthropologist Kristen Hawkes studies the Hazda for a window on ancient worlds.

As a grandmother myself, I am naturally drawn to well researched articles on grandmothers throughout history. Their role has fluctuated, of course. In some periods, they have been useful — essential even. At other times, they have been pretty useless. Here’s a report from John Poole about very early grandmothers. I heard it at Rhode Island Public Radio.

Kristen Hawkes is an anthropologist at the University of Utah. She tries to figure out our past by studying modern hunter-gatherers like the Hadza, who likely have lived in the area that is now northern Tanzania for thousands of years. Groups like this are about as close as we can get to seeing how our early human ancestors might have lived.

“Over many extended field visits, Hawkes and her colleagues kept track of how much food a wide sample of Hadza community members were bringing home. She says that when they tracked the success rates of individual men, ‘they almost always failed to get a big animal.’ … In this society at least, the [old] hunting hypothesis seemed way off the mark. If people here were depending on wild meat to survive, they would starve.

“So if dad wasn’t bringing home the bacon, who was? After spending a lot of time with the women on their daily foraging trips, the researchers were surprised to discover that the women, both young and old, were providing the majority of calories to their families and group-mates.

“Mostly, they were digging tubers, which are deeply buried and hard to extract. The success of a mother at gathering these tubers correlated with the growth of her child.

But something else surprising happened once mom had a second baby:

“That original relationship went away and a new correlation emerged with the amount of food their grandmother was gathering. …

“In this foraging society, it turns out, grandmothers were more important to child survival than fathers.”

Other researchers have come up with other likely benefits of prehistoric grandmothers.

Michael Tomasello is a developmental psychologist at Duke University and the Max Planck Institute. … Tomasello originally assumed that the pro-social traits in human babies [described by researchers such as U.C. Davis primatologist Sarah Hrdy] were preparing kids for skills they’d need as adults, in line with the Man the Hunter hypothesis. Now he thinks that Hrdy’s proposal – that human babies are so socially oriented as a result of shared child care and feeding – is a more compelling theory. The traits appear so early in a human’s life that it makes better sense that they were adapted to early childhood situations rather than adult hunting behaviors.

“It’s this ability to ‘put our heads together,’ as Tomasello puts it, that may have allowed humans to survive, thrive and spread across the globe. While the men were out hunting, grandmothers and babies were building the foundation of our species’ success – sharing food, cooperating on more and more complex levels and developing new social relationships.”

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