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The Invention of Grandparents: Exploring the Origins of Multi-Generational Storytelling

Igniting the Imagination

It began with fire.

Our distant human-like ancestors mastered the primal technology of fire-making more than a million years ago. Even when we were a nomadic people on the African plains, fire gave us a gathering place against the dark of night. Fire gave us a sense of comfort and safety. The flames were our best defense against the threat of animals bigger and stronger than us. We could cook food, aiding us in developing our big brains.

Fire became a technology that helped us shaped the landscape and a tool for regulating the rhythm of dark and light in our lives. We clustered around the glowing embers under the star-sprinkled sky. Uncounted eons slipped by.

By 100,000 years ago, our species, Homo Sapiens, was able to think in symbols and create the first artwork: Ritual burial and decorated objects of bone and stone and antler. We crawled deep into caves and painted our animal dreams on the rough stone walls. We communicated with gestures, facial expressions and body language.

By 40,000 years ago, thanks to an evolutionary re-wiring of the brain, the gift of spoken language allowed us to think in abstract symbols and to convey vibrant images to another person through the spoken word. Image-ination was born.

The Grandmother Hypothesis

But we had a problem. There were few elders. Average life expectancy was barely 30. Many of us died in childbirth or perished from the rigors of living in the open. For our species, thirty is the magic number, because that is the age when a woman could conceivably have a daughter who could then have a child, making the elder woman a grandmother. For most, this never happened. A few of us managed to live to be 70 years old. But this was such a rare occurrence that it had no significant impact on the culture.

Then, due to improved living conditions, something happened that changed the fabric of human life forever: We saw the emergence of a new strata of society that had never existed before. Some researchers call this amazing demographic shift “The Grandmother Hypothesis”.

Anthropologists Dr. James Adovasio and Dr. Olga Soffer tell the fascinating story in their ground-breaking book, The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory.

They write,

“In the late Paleolithic about 30,000 years ago, about the same time as the Creative Revolution in Europe, there was a sudden four-fold increase in the number of adults old enough to be grandparents. Rachel Caspari of the University of Michigan and Sang-Hee Lee of the University of California at Riverside have identified a sudden leap in the number of people surviving to older age by studying the rates of molar wear. The sudden increase in the number of surviving elders contributed importantly to population expansion and cultural innovations and may have contributed to an early version of the recent information explosion, with older people’s long memories serving as living repositories of useful information.”

Family groups who were able to add grandmothers and grandfathers to their circle gained an enormous advantage. This extra set of hands, knowledgeable and skilled in the details of daily living, freed parents to focus on the tasks of gathering resources needed for the survival of the family while offering childcare for those old enough to leave their mother’s breast.

For the first time, a significant number of individuals were living long enough (and had enough useful experience) to bundle their accumulated wisdom and knowledge into a compact, durable package: the spoken story. Before the advent of the written word, the vast weight of cultural knowledge, memory and insight was carried forward through the generations by the oral tradition.

We are Wired for Story

As we sat around the fire at night, our grandmothers and grandfathers encoded the legacy of our culture into stories so compelling that these tales would certainly be repeated and passed along to the next generation. The cosmology and spiritual life of the people was anchored by these stories. Cultural information that did not make it into a story might very well perish with the individual; whatever was embedded in our stories had a far better chance of enduring to nurture the next generation.

In the brain, cells that fire together wire together. Our love of stories was forged by the sound of the grandparents’ voice, whispering into our young ears on those primordial nights by the fireside.

But that is not the end of the story. The invention of grandparents proved to be one of our most successful societal innovations. In modern times, grand parenting remains a mainstay of family life. Because life expectancy has steadily increased, there are more grandparents than ever. Back when the U.S. was founded, average life expectancy was 35. (We had only gained a scant 5 years since Paleolithic times!) By the turn of the century, it jumped to 47. Today it is 78.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in Civil War times, the number of U.S. adults over the age of 65 was 3 percent of the national population. Today it is 15 percent. By 2050, the Census Bureau predicts the number will climb to 22 percent. Here’s an interesting factoid: In the next four years, for the first time in human history, the number of people over the age of 65 will exceed the number of children under the age of 5.

The Age of Grandparents

We are living in The Age of Grandparents (and great-grandparents). Soon many of us will be slipping into the ancestral role of the elder storyteller, if we have not already. Despite the many advances in information technology, the majority of teaching, learning and human bonding still takes place in the form of spoken language. Even as the many blessings of the written, broadcast and digital world surrounding us with their versions of modern-day storytelling, a part of us still longs to sit by the fire and hear the voices of The Old Ones, speaking to us in The Language of the Dream.

If this makes sense to you, you might ask:

“How do we modern-day storytellers add to this ancestral river of images, flowing from the human tongue to the waiting ear?”

The answer is astonishing in its power and simplicity:

All we need to remember is the most important question any human can ask another.

We ask: “Would you like to hear a story?”

If the listener agrees, the ancient contract is signed and the human journey continues…

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