Sediba Fossils 9

The sed­i­ba fos­sils were dis­cov­ered at the Mala­pa caves, at the Cra­dle of Humankind

On 11 May the world cel­e­brates Mother’s Day, a lov­ing trib­ute to the lady we call Mom”. At Maropeng we’d like to hon­our the palaeoan­thro­pol­gi­cal evo­lu­tion of moth­er­hood, and recog­nise the role ear­ly moth­er­ing played in the preser­va­tion of humankind.

Accord­ing to Lind­say Mar­shall, Maropeng’s mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ag­er, the 2009 dis­cov­ery of Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus sed­i­ba fos­sils (MH1 and MH2) at Mala­pa, in the Cra­dle of Humankind World Her­itage Site, was not only of vital impor­tance in terms of piec­ing togeth­er the evi­dence for human evo­lu­tion, it also served as a prim­i­tive reminder of the bond between moth­er and child.

While research is still under way, Mar­shall says that, accord­ing to sci­en­tists, the fos­sil evi­dence reveals a young child and its moth­er who died togeth­er almost two mil­lion years ago.

Inter­est­ing­ly, accord­ing to Dr Sarah Blaf­fer Hrdy, who is hailed as the lead­ing sci­en­tif­ic author­i­ty on moth­er­hood and is the author of Moth­ers and Oth­ers: The Evo­lu­tion­ary Ori­gins of Mutu­al Under­stand­ing, this is rough­ly the time peri­od when ear­ly hominid moth­ers start­ed accept­ing help from oth­ers in child-rear­ing. And, as it turns out, this seem­ing­ly obvi­ous prac­tice was an essen­tial part of our evo­lu­tion and survival.

7  Prof

Pro­fes­sor Lee Berg­er with the Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus sed­i­ba fossils

Dr Hrdy explains how a small behav­iour­al change by our ear­ly ances­tral moth­ers – name­ly, that of allow­ing oth­ers to help take the care of their young – was respon­si­ble for the evo­lu­tion of some of the sig­na­ture attrib­ut­es of humans, includ­ing empa­thy, co-oper­a­tion and even our large brains.

Hrdy points out that hominid pop­u­la­tions remained small for much of the Pleis­tocene era (rough­ly 1.8-million to 12 000 years ago), because of the high fatal­i­ty rate of their young.

It has only been in the last 15 years, as we’ve start­ed to actu­al­ly look at what it takes in a hunter-gath­er­er con­text to keep chil­dren alive and what we’re learn­ing high­lights the impor­tance, not just of moth­ers or par­ents, but also of allo­par­ents – group mem­bers oth­er than the genet­ic moth­er and father. Grand­moth­ers, aunts, uncles, cousins and old­er sib­lings,” says Hrdy.

This behav­iour­al dif­fer­ence between ear­ly hominids and oth­er ape species could have been the rea­son for their sud­den increase in numbers.

Even today, oth­er apes and pri­mates have not learnt the impor­tance of this behav­iour – chim­panzees, orang­utans and goril­la moth­ers still care exclu­sive­ly for their infants.

A moth­er orang­utan, for exam­ple, will not allow any oth­er indi­vid­ual to take her infant. She stays in con­stant skin-to-skin con­tact with the baby for at least the first six months of its life. And she will nurse her off­spring for as long as sev­en years. 

Human moth­ers (in every tra­di­tion­al soci­ety for which we have infor­ma­tion) allow oth­ers to hold, and help car­ry and care for, their infants short­ly after birth.
This is a real­ly major dif­fer­ence, although until now not much was made of it,” says Hrdy.

She explains that human infants are born larg­er and even more help­less than any of the oth­er apes, and yet when one com­pares the birth inter­vals in mod­ern human hunter-gath­er­ers with the birth inter­vals in any of the oth­er great apes, one finds that babies are weaned soon­er and their moth­ers are breed­ing at a much faster pace than the great apes. 

To illus­trate her point she uses the exam­ple of inter-birth inter­val in an orang­utan – sev­en to eight years, and the five or six years in a chim­panzee com­pared to the two- to three-year inter-birth inter­val for humans. Hrdy ascribes this to the addi­tion­al help with feed­ing and car­ing from the alloparents.

With their chil­dren buffered from star­va­tion in this way, pop­u­la­tions could also per­sist even in the face of very chal­leng­ing envi­ron­ments, and also migrate into nov­el habi­tats, and, of course, even­tu­al­ly out of Africa and around the globe.”

This sure­ly gives cre­dence to the old African adage that says it takes a vil­lage to raise a child. Hrdy agrees: There was just so much empha­sis on hunt­ing and war­fare that we over­looked how impor­tant child-rear­ing was. After all, in evo­lu­tion­ary terms, off­spring sur­vival is where the rub­ber hits the road.”

Thank Mom for everything

Spoil Mom at Maropeng this Mother’s Day.

Treat her to din­ner, bed and break­fast (plus a mas­sage) at the Maropeng Hotel (click here to book), spoil her with a delec­table lunch and head-and-shoul­der mas­sage (click here to book), or treat the whole fam­i­ly to a fab­u­lous Mother’s Day lunch at the Tumu­lus Restau­rant (with an extra sur­prise for all Moms). 

Click here to read more about our Mother’s Day spe­cial offers.