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Anthropologist Kristen Hawkes Links Longevity to Grandmothers

Kristen Hawkes, Anthropology Professor at the University of Utah has found a link between grandmothers and longevity. After researching primates to better understand why humans live as long as they do, Hawkes traced longevity back to our closest primate cousins: apes.

Hawkes began studying the "grandmother hypothesis" closely in Tanzania during the 1980s with fellow anthropologist James O'Connell. After the pair lived with Hadza people and observed that these hunter-gatherers often relied on older female members of the community to gather food for and feed grandchildren, both concluded that older female primates purposes bolstered the fitness of their daughters by assisting in the feeding and “babysitting” of their grand child offspring. Hawkes stated that this act extended beyond the moment and had long term effects with: “Older females, whose fertility was coming to an end, could now make a big difference in the their fitness by helping their daughters feed those grandchildren. And that would mean that moms could wean earlier.” Hawkes then linked primate behavior and roles of older females to humans by expanding with: “That whole array of changes could account for why we have longer adult lifespans. We age more slowly. We mature later. Our kids are actually dependent longer, but we wean them earlier than the other apes do. And that hypothesis has been on the table for a while” by triggering a genetic change to be passed down through generations as primates evolved to humans over the course of 24,000 to 60,000 years.

Hawkes concluded with a distinction between humans and “our closest living relatives, the other great apes” which stressed the importance of grandmothers and the act of grandmothering. Both have fostered social interdependence, made humans more “prone to engage each other’s attention,” and proved that “women usually live through the childbearing years and are healthy and productive well beyond” are vital to communities.

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