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The Evolution of Grandparents

Senior citizens may have been the secret of our species's success
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Illustration by Viktor Deak

During the summer of 1963, when I was six years old, my family traveled from our home in Philadelphia to Los Angeles to visit my maternal relatives. I already knew my grandmother well: she helped my mother care for my twin brothers, who were only 18 months my junior, and me. When she was not with us, my grandmother lived with her mother, whom I met that summer for the first time. I come from a long-lived family. My grandmother was born in 1895, and her mother in the 1860s; both lived almost 100 years. We stayed with the two matriarchs for several weeks. Through their stories, I learned about my roots and where I belonged in a social network spanning four generations. Their reminiscences personally connected me to life at the end of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era and to the challenges my ancestors faced and the ways they persevered.

My story is not unique. Elders play critical roles in human societies around the globe, conveying wisdom and providing social and economic support for the families of their children and larger kin groups. In our modern era, people routinely live long enough to become grandparents. But this was not always the case. When did grandparents become prevalent, and how did their ubiquity affect human evolution?

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