Old people, like those who live to be older than 30, didn’t exist in great numbers until about 30,000 years ago. Why is that? Anthropologist Rachel Caspari speculates that around that time, enough people were living long enough to function as a shared cultural hard drive for humans, a living memory bank for skills, histories, family trees, etc. that helped human groups survive longer.
Caspari says it wasn’t a biological change that allowed people to start living reliably to their 30s and beyond. (When she looked at other populations of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens that lived in the same place and time, the two different species had similar proportions of old people, suggesting the change was not genetic.) Instead, it was culture. Something about how people were living made it possible to survive into old age, maybe the way they found or stored food or built shelters, who knows. That’s all lost-pretty much all we have of them is teeth-but once humans found a way to keep old people around, everything changed.
Old people are repositories of information, Caspari says. They know about the natural world, how to handle rare disasters, how to perform complicated skills, who is related to whom, where the food and caves and enemies are. They maintain and build intricate social networks. A lot of skills that allowed humans to take over the world take a lot of time and training to master, and they wouldn’t have been perfected or passed along without old people. “They can be great teachers,” Caspari says, “and they allow for more complex societies.” Old people made humans human.
What’s so special about age 30? That’s when you’re old enough to be a grandparent. Studies of modern hunter-gatherers and historical records suggest that when older people help take care of their grandchildren, the grandchildren are more likely to survive. The evolutionary advantages of living long enough to help raise our children’s children may be what made it biologically plausible for us to live to once unthinkably old ages today.