Imagine a prehistoric human mother raising her baby outside of any community or family structure, with no help from others. It sure doesn’t fit with my idea of the “village” that raises a child, a phrase I often associate with romantic notions of pre-modern lifestyles. But according to a study done by University of Utah anthropologist Karen Kramer, PhD, if you go far back enough in human evolution, mothers raised their young alone and didn’t feed or care for them past weaning (which happened around 5 or 6 years of age!).
The study, published in the Journal of Human Evolution and interestingly titled “When mothers need others: The impact of hominin life history evolution on cooperative breeding,” examines how humans transitioned into family and community patterns of child rearing. It suggests that the earliest cooperative groups were formed by a mother and many of her children, with older ones helping rear younger siblings; after this was established, other adults were incorporated, probably when bands of mothers with their offspring teamed up. As women became better at reproducing, they needed the extra help.
As noted in a University of Utah press release, this is different from the predominating theories among anthropologists, which point to cooperation among adults. Kramer also comments:
Human mothers are interesting. They’re unlike mothers of many other species because they feed their children after weaning and others help them raise their children. As an anthropologist, I live and work in traditional societies where, like other researchers, I have observed many times that it takes a village to raise a child. Not only do mothers work hard to care for their young, but so do her older children, grandmothers, fathers and other relatives. But this wasn’t always the case.
The consequences for health likely factored into the “economic decision making” that Kramer modeled in her study – children reared cooperatively were more likely to survive, and I imagine mothers garnered more than a few benefits from extra pairs of eyes, ears, hands, and feet, as well.
And another thing this study shows us: Some of the same decisions that parents weigh today – how many children to have, which kind of help to recruit in raising them, and what kind of balance between kids and other pursuits will optimize health – are really not so novel.