A Prehistoric Woman's Place Was Not in the Cave

Filed under: In The News

chimpanzee

In any primate society -- the females, the males or some of both -- must eventually leave their birth community and join or form other communities. Credit: Hector Guerrero, AFP/Getty

"Flintstones! Meet the Flintstones! They're the newly discovered prehistoric family! Fred stayed home watching Oprah while Wilma explored the territory!"

Not really. Prehistoric Oprah was probably out exploring, too.

Women, apparently, got out and about some 2.7 to 1.7 million years ago, while the guys stayed home and scratched themselves. Some things never change.

Fresh research, reported in Discovery News, challenges the idea that a woman's place is genetically geared to be the home while the more aggressive males go forth into the wider world. Turns out, in prehistoric families, the reverse may have been true.

You have go back a ways -- two species below humans on the evolutionary scale, to be precise -- yet, Discovery News reports human males may have a genetic predisposition for sitting on the couch and eating chips. Meanwhile, women may have the same wanderlust as female chimpanzees and bonobos.

"In any primate society -- the females, the males or some of both -- must eventually leave their birth community and join or form other communities," lead researcher Sandi Copeland, an adjunct professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, tells Discovery News. "One important reason for this is to prevent inbreeding."

Copeland and her team analyzed 19 teeth from both Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus -- two early human forebears who lived in different time periods, but in the adjacent South African cave systems of Sterkfontein and Swartkans.

This is the cool part: Discovery News reports researchers used a technique called laser ablation to zap the teeth with lasers. This measures the choppers' strontium isotope ratios. And this means?

"Strontium isotope ratios are a direct reflection of the foods these hominids ate, which in turn are a reflection of the local geology," Copeland explains.

Researchers were able to deduce from all this that the guys stayed in place while the gals roamed. Women did this for much the same reason they leave their hometowns today: They don't want to keep dating the same guys.

"It is possible that female hominins chose to leave their natal groups in order to mate with unrelated males, an indirect result of the males in their natal group choosing not to leave," Copeland tells Discovery News.

Even though the guys stayed at home, Copeland says that doesn't mean they took care of the kids. Look at chimps, she adds. Male chimpanzees stay at home, too. But do they help raise the children? Forget it, Copeland tells Discovery News.

Another possible implication is that two-legged walking emerged in humans for reasons other than improved locomotion.

"If one interprets our results as indicating that male australopiths rarely moved long distances, then one is left to wonder if the need for energetic efficiency was sufficient to drive the origins of bipedalism," co-author Matt Sponheimer explained.

Then again, researcher Matt Sponheimer, an anthropology professor at the University of Colorado, tells Discovery News there is a lot more to learn.

"This study is one example of how we can sometimes, if we are lucky, coax old bones and teeth to relinquish a few of their secrets," he tells Discovery News. "And I don't doubt that we are getting better and better and getting more from less and less. But I think we have a long road before us. Much about our forebears continues to be resolutely mysterious."

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