| 13.6°C Dublin

Grannies' vital role in shaping our brains

GRANDMOTHERS might have played a key role in human evolution, helping us develop bigger brains and longer lives, say researchers.

The "grandmother hypothesis" says there are evolutionary benefits from having older, non-reproductive females caring for offspring. Scientists tested the theory by running computer simulations of many generations of chimpanzees.

In the real world, female chimps rarely live past their child-bearing years, usually dying in their 30s or 40s.


But when grandmothering was added to the virtual world of the computer simulation, it made a huge difference to evolving chimp lifespan.

After 24,000 to 60,000 years of grandmothers caring for grandchildren, chimpanzees who reached adulthood lived another 49 years -- as do human hunter gatherers.

Before the addition of grandmothers, the simulated animals lived only another 25 years after reaching adulthood, just like chimps do in the wild.

According to the hypothesis, when grandmothers help feed their grandchildren after weaning, their daughters can produce more children at shorter intervals. Because of the benefits of grandmothers helping with childrearing, females end up living long after they lose the ability to reproduce.

Natural selection favours longevity genes which are passed to offspring, thereby increasing both female and male lifespan.

In their computer model, the US and Australian scientists deliberately made the grandmother effect "weak" by assuming that a female could not be a grandmother until at least the age of 45, that she could not care for a child until age two, and that she could care for only one child.

They found that even a weak grandmother effect bestowed human-scale longevity on to chimpanzees.

The researchers, whose findings are reported in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, believe the implications go beyond lifespan and underlie many key changes in human evolution including larger brain size. Lead scientist Professor Kristen Hawkes, from the University of Utah, said: "Grandmothering was the initial step toward making us who we are."