The Evolutionary Importance of Grandmothers

The Evolutionary Importance of Grandmothers
The Gifts of Our Grannies

When she smiles, the lines in her face become epic narratives that trace the stories of generations that no book can replace. ― Curtis Tyrone Jones

When I look back on my fondest childhood memories, there are a few that always surface. Standing on a chair in the kitchen next to my Nana as she teaches me to make pikelets; I wait till her back is turned before slyly dunking my finger in the mixture. Watching avidly as she tells me tales that her grandmother shared with her. And excitedly showing her the latest issue of my weekly newspaper ‘The Daily Llama’ – she’s the biggest (and only) fan. 

When I was older and came to terms with the fact that ‘The Daily Llama’ was never going to be a success, I cherished long chats with Nana after school as I plonked myself on the carpet next to her rocking chair. She shared her wisdom, her humour, and her humility with me. Of course, all these things were vehicles for her unconditional love.

With both my parents working full-time, my grandparents played an important role in my upbringing. While not every family has this dynamic (there is no right or wrong), science is beginning to show that grandparents, and grandmothers in particular, have played a crucial role in human evolution and most importantly, how we connect with each other.

Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have been questioning the reason for women to go through menopause, a stage in life that we do not share with other primates. After all, wouldn’t it be better for the species if women were able to continue bearing children for the entirety of their lives? Men can procreate for as long as they can rise to the occasion.  

The ‘Grandmother Hypothesis’ argues that the role of grandmothers in society helps shape who we are. 

GrandmothersOur grandmothers help shape who we are. Image: Clément Falize

The Grandmother Hypothesis

Kristen Hawkes, an anthropologist at the University of Utah, is the lead researcher who looked into this hypothesis in a study published in the Journal Proceedings of the Royal Society and says they found grandmothers have helped us develop an array of social capacities. This includes those that are “the foundation for the evolution of other distinctly human traits, including pair bonding, bigger brains, learning new skills and our tendency for cooperation.”

Young people need something stable to hang on to — a culture connection, a sense of their own past, a hope for their own future. Most of all, they need what grandparents can give them. —Jay Kesler

The study, which was undertaken with mathematical biologist Peter Kim and anthropologist James Coxworth, used computer simulations to see the effect of menopause on hypothetical primates. Spanning 60,000 years, the researchers made the hypothetical subjects evolve to live into their sixties and seventies (decades past their fertile years). Eventually, forty-three percent of the mature female primates were grandmothers.

Grannies for Survival

From a survival perspective, the researchers suggested that if a mother has help with multiple children, larger families become more viable. They found that grandmothers can assist families by acting as supplementary caregivers, and also help with the collection of food. 

However, the researchers also argued that the social relations which go along with grandmothering have created many uniquely human traits.

As other primates have only one child they are responsible for at any one time, the mother can dedicate her whole attention to that baby. However, humans often have multiple children. With many mums juggling crying babies, toddlers throwing tantrums, and hungry children all at once, help is sometimes necessary to keep family life running smoothly. Traditionally grandmothers, with their wisdom and parenting experience, have stepped up to this role and provided attention to older children while the mum looks after the baby. Evolving with this kind of support has provided humans with the opportunity to become more socially aware and connected with each other. 

 “Grandmothering gave us the kind of upbringing that made us more dependent on each other socially and prone to engage each other’s attention,” Hawkes says. 

SupportGrandmothers provide much-needed support within the family unit. Image: Paolo Bendandi

The study acknowledged that, of course, in the real world many mothers get help from other sources, such as fathers and older siblings. But grandmothers are unique in the sense that they have often, but not always, already been a mother. They are qualified for the job without the distractions of youth and the sometimes dominant hormonal drivers. 

Becoming a grandmother is wonderful. One moment you’re just a mother. The next you are all-wise and prehistoric. — Pam Brown

Indigenous Views of Grandmothers

This research sits alongside long respected indigenous views of elders and grandparents. Indigenous cultures around the world view elders as the cornerstones of society and family life. As the Australian Institute of Family Studies summarises, in Aboriginal culture, elderly family and community members are respected for a variety of reasons including “their narrative historical value, where testimonies about the Dreaming and daily community life help others to understand the practical aspects of life and society.” 

The very old and the very young have something in common that makes it right that they should be left alone together. Dawn and sunset see stars shining in a blue sky. ― Elizabeth Goudge

I’m incredibly grateful that growing up, I was able to form strong bonds with my grandparents and create cherished memories with them. Now when I sit with my Nana, who is mostly housebound, it is me who tells the tales – she enjoys the insight into my life and the modern world which still seems foreign to her. Yet, I know it is her wisdom, love, and dedication that made me into the woman I am today. She is running through my veins, my neural pathways, and dances in the chambers of my heart. I feel blessed to be able to teach that intimate and unique choreography to my children when they arrive. My greatest wish would be for my grandmother to become a great-grandmother …  together with my mother, we can all teach the nostalgic dances of yesteryear to our children of today. 


Have you cherished memories with grandparents or other older caregivers? Perhaps you are a grandparent yourself? We would love to hear your stories and insights in the comments below.  

Much Love,


BY Ashleigh Wilson
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kamir bouchareb st
1 year ago


Corinne Pelzl
3 years ago

My sister, who founded a parenting education program [], from her research found statistics showing that worldwide, the best determiner of whether a child lives or dies, not whether the child goes to school, or has regular meals, but whether she or he lives or dies, is the presence of grandparents.

Carolina Castro
3 years ago

I’m mother to a 16 mo baby. Seeing my grandma (84) taking care of her and sharing together it´s such an immeasurable joy.

Linda Browne
3 years ago

I have had the privilege of being involved with my granddaughter since she was born. We have a very strong and loving bond and spend a lot of time together. It is the highlight of my life. There is such joy in her enfolding and learning about life. My greatest role now as she approaches 12 is just listening and laughing. I am always finding jokes to make her laugh and stories from my past about her mother’s life and mine. She treasures these stories and loves me to share photos of her when she was little. Often she asks me to repeat the stories, especially the ones about how much she is loved. Thank you for this article on being a grandmother.

Amy Herrinton
3 years ago

I was raised by both my grandmothers at different times as both my parents worked full-time jobs. I cherish memories with both of my grandmothers. It’s true, they offer experience and love like no other! I hold a deep respect & love for those two women in my life…
And what can I say, I was a favorite grandchild of one of those grandmothers… She had at least 10 other grandchildren. But the bond between the two of us was unlike any other!
She shared with me her amazing spirit and was a supreme example of service!

Doug DeNunzio
3 years ago

the idea is how to process something that makes sense in your own words who she is before she died of old age at age 52.

3 years ago

My grand mother was an amazing woman, educated, worldly and wise. She has been my inspiration and has been my rock through difficult times. After my grand father died when I was about 12 I asked her if she missed him. She said no, he is always with her. I thought about that a lot, and now I feel she iis always with me. My mom was very close to my grandma, and I was close to my mom. All seems very natural but some of my siblings did not have similar relationships with our grandmother. I know I am lucky to have had the relationship I had with my Grandmother Elora, and my youngest grand daughter is Olive Elora.

Annie Coleman
3 years ago

I have two wonderful sons, and I have 6 amazing grands, 3 foster grands and 2 adopted grands. Although I live very far from them all, I love the fact that thru social media I am able to stay connected………..and share love, wisdom and many of the virtues suggested in this post. I had an amazing Gram, she taught me many many things. The least of which was tenacity, love of nature and forgiveness.

3 years ago


Catherine Prieto
3 years ago

I love how this has grasped its essence in one article. Grandparents who traditionally played a major role in upbringing children has been displaced in home shelters for some, while in others simply in a house apart from where childrens are. Consequences are seen: depression among elders, loss of importance and rise of generations of children not morally upright. This gives rise to depressed and anxious teens, some due to loneliness seek company from each other or non-caring people, leading to sexually active teens, wth subsequent rise in HIV.

Some grandparents refuse to take on this role, for some they were pushed outside of child’s life by being in homes apart or in shelters. I hope grandparents and the society realize this soon. Our society is getting worst and no amount of quick fix no matter how expensive can cure it until we get to the root of the problem. This article pinned it quite well.

Pam Jones
3 years ago

Thank you for this article… It has explained my feelings to me…. Why I feel such a strong need to try and communicate with my 17 year old grandson whom I have not had the opportunity to get to know because we have been living in different countries… Thousands of miles apart. Is it too late now I wonder? We are now living so much closer… About an hour away!!

Dena Hunt
3 years ago

Sadly 50s born women are being denied state pension for up to 6 years and need to carry on working meaning they unable to care for grandchildren until age 66. Difficult for grandmother, daughter and grandchild. Future generations will have longer to prepare for retirement but this group of women and their families have been hit the hardest with no notice of the hike from 60 to 66. Surely this must affect the three generations concerned.

David Steckbauer
3 years ago

I owe so much of who I am today to my paternal grandmother: for better or worse.
Unknowingly, she really was a mother figure in many ways.
My biological mother was emotionally distant and I couldn’t connect with her.
As a child my grandmother was the only adult who was ‘real’ to me. Her presence was a force to be reckoned with, and even in her own dysfunction, I appreciated her because she was authentic.
She taught me to spell, read and write, do math, to tie my shoes, how to blow a bubbles with my gum, how to sing and be creative, and how to ask for things to get my needs met and really how to get by in this world.
However, her most lasting impact on me was her love. I remember her eyes so vividly, sparkling blue that shone with joy when I would walk in the room. She was the only adult to ever tell me I was precious. That meant so much to me as a kid.
I distinctly remember her calling me to tell me that no matter where I am, what time it is, or how old I get, to call her and she will be there for me. Such love! Even up until her death when I was 20 years old she was still there for me, making sure she was there if I needed her. A grandmother can really change your life for the better. I hope to one day return the favor to my own grandchildren.

4 years ago

We are genetically and epigenetically linked to these wonderful people. Find and share their stories before they are no longer there. You may need to know why you are as you are, after they have gone.
Illness information can help you to recent research your life.

4 years ago

I am blessed with two amazing grandmothers, one of whom is still around and a wonderful great grandmother to my children. Both my grandmothers were examples to me of strong women who raised another generation of strong women and who taught me about family, generosity and compassion for others. One of my most treasured possessions is linen and lace table cloth my paternal grandmother gave me when I turned 40, it was her 21st birthday gift from her grandmother and still had the card her grandmother wrote her. It is a cherished dream to one day pass this on to my own granddaughter. My grandmothers have enriched my life in so many ways.

4 years ago

My Nana was my mentor and my inspiration for how I treat and love my eight grandchildren. She had six grandchildren and we have often talked of how we each felt we were her favorite. She always greeted us by saying “oh, my dear hearts”. She was the dear heart. Her cooking was sublime and her house with a place of intrigue and shelter. She came and took care of me and my first baby daughter, as my Mom was working and couldn’t do it. What lovely memories of her I have and I cherish them to this day. I think our kids desperately need family rituals and special occasions to look back on and I have made that my goal as a grandmother. When they were little I had a basket of instruments and we paraded around the house every time they were here at my house and they were about to leave. Every year I have planned and implemented a family vacation with all the grands, we have a “last day of school” dinner, where we all cook together and they talk about their year, and we have random breakfasts out, where they all talk and I listen. And most importantly, I have been the impetus for us volunteering with the homeless in our area. Some like it, some don’t so much, but they have all been exposed to the enormous need out there. I am so blessed and grateful for her inspiration and my oportunity to now be a grandmother and pass it on.

4 years ago

I am a nanny and the grandchildren live upstairs .. I have gained so much love and joy in my life by spending time with the children .. the boy is six and the girl is one… and I believe they have learned much from my company also .. sometimes it is hard and tiring and when I feel like I’m not getting any younger grand parenting lifts my spirit and I see the circle of life in action

4 years ago

I had a very special bond with my paternal Grandma. I had many reminders from other family members that I was a bother, a screw-up and a clutz, but In Grandma’s eyes I was just fine and she loved me unconditionally. She had twenty grandchildren, but I secretly felt that I was her favorite. Later, as an adult talking with cousins and my brother and sister, I discovered each of them had felt that they were Grandma’s favorite Grandchild.

Claudia Stewart
4 years ago

I only had my paternal grandmother until I was 8. My mum divorced then and I wasn’t allowed to see them. I remember shelling peas with her and hunting for snails in the garden so she could make escargot for my dad. She was French and had a heavy accent. Her cooking was amazing and I think my mum was jealous. I still miss her. My other grandmother wasn’t my mum’s mother, but she was the only grandmother I knew on that side. She cooked Southern dishes and every year we were in the kitchen canning and preserving.

Carol cardon-smith
4 years ago

I was blessed with my children’s grandmother for a very short time but my whole being knows what we missed
Why do humans only miss what is gone I would give my all to have her back for my children yes but Aldo for me

4 years ago

My grandmother was my best friend. She was kind and giving, smart and creative, loved my mother, her daughter, and therefore me, just because. She read the newspaper front to back, and with a 6th grade education, marveled at my education, my mind, my smarts. She gave affection while cook in, mending, or teaching me to crochet or do needlework. She told us stories of her parents’ lives in Europe and their difficult times in the states as well as her in-laws’ lives in the mining town in PA before settling in Western New York. She lived with my mother toward the end of her life and took phone messages for us all, was ready with the weather report, or the local and national news from tv. She taught by example and is still loved, still with us years after her death at 99.

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