Friday, October 26, 2012

Is That You, Grandma?

Popular Archaeology, Tue, Oct 23, 2012
“Was Grandmothering a Key to Human Evolution?”
“Kristen Hawkes, a distinguished professor of anthropology at the University of Utah and senior author of the new study published Oct. 24 by the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.”

[Start here. Yo, you.]

It’s a sweet, if slightly myopic, study.

Let me get my disclaimers out of the way. I’m a grandparent. I live with a grandmother. I’m all in favor of grandmothers. I think grandmothers rule the world.

That being said, let’s give a big shout-out for grandfathers.

Kristen Hawkes, it appears, would like to give the credit to grandmothers; and I’m more than willing to giver them all the credit they deserve, but I suspect both sexes had a role in Ms Hawke’s findings.

PA said: “Hawkes, University of Utah anthropologist James O'Connell and UCLA anthropologist Nicholas Blurton Jones formally proposed the grandmother hypothesis in 1997, and it has been debated ever since. Once major criticism was that it lacked a mathematical underpinning – something the new study sought to provide.” They summarized Hawkes proposal as “a famous theory that humans evolved longer adult lifespans than apes because grandmothers helped feed their grandchildren.”

Which begs the question: What were the grandfathers doing? Whittling spears?

The authors came to their conclusions “when they lived with Tanzania's Hazda hunter-gatherer people and watched older women spend their days collecting tubers and other foods for their grandchildren. Except for humans, all other primates and mammals collect their own food after weaning.”
Photo: Martin Shoeller
They never do say what the grandfathers were doing. (Let’s see, the Hazda are hunter-gatherers. The authors observed the women gathering. Do you suppose the men could have been out hunting?)

Hawkes is on to something, but she doesn’t know quite what. In this study they haven’t done research on observable realities but were instead working on creating computer simulations that would verify their assumptions. To no one’s surprise, they succeeded. They mathematically described a possibility and then tweaked it until it worked, demonstrating that possibility could have happened. I have no doubt they’re right.

But what they’re attributing to grandmothers, I’d attribute to structural changes in human society. It wasn’t, simply, that grandmother’s were feeding weaned children and extending their dependence on others for sustenance. The answer lies in what Hawkes herself said: “The [apes] that began to exploit resources little kids couldn't handle, opened this window for grandmothering and eventually evolved into humans."

The operatives words here are “little kids couldn't handle.” What was it about the food these humans were eating that, unlike all other primates, the kids needed adults to gather it for them? Hawkes, et al, don’t broach that question. Primates aren’t unusual in being able to self-feed immediately after weaning, most mammals are similarly equipped. As a rule, once you can reach the fruit, grass, leaves, nuts, by yourself, you’re on your own. Why we should be different, apparently, was of no concern to the authors.

The exceptions are predators like lions and tigers, and bears, oh my. And us. But if you’re reading Ms Hawkes, you’d never know that. As far as Ms Hawkes is concerned, food stops at tubers and roots; although why weaned children would need adults to provide them with said tubers and roots when they are perfectly capable of getting them themselves is never explained. Because the food in question, the food that the “little kids couldn't handle,” was meat. Everything else they could manage just fine, thank you. Meat, though, they had to be ready to go out after. Just like those Hazda grandfathers who are ignored and are nowhere to be found, they’re out hunting what the kids can’t handle. “Leave the little ones home with the women; we’ll go on a walk-about.”
Yes, yes, grandmothers are important in human society and have been forever; but no more so than the rest of the fabric. Grandmothers only became important when we had settled down into predators’ camps, when we had the luxury of community. It wasn't just the grandmothers who raised the little children, it was the whole village. Grandmothers became important when we had the luxury of having them at all. Grandmothers became important when we started bringing food home and sharing it rather than every person for themselves. If grandma had to climb that tree for dinner, tough titties. Grandmothers (and fathers) are a luxury of a meat-eating society. If it wasn’t for that, we’d never have come together around the campfire; we’d still be out grubbing for tubers and roots. It was no vegetarian what captured fire.

I repeat: The driving force behind humans becoming humans was meat. Pure and simple, meat. Nothing but meat. No tubers, no roots, no sweet berries, no saturated nuts. Nope. Meat. Betcha hamburger.

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