How Old is an Old Woman?

2 million year old woman

2 million year old A. sediba is on the left, and a male chimp is on the right.

I’ve been listening to Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ audio book the Dangerous Old Woman, where she speaks of the two milion year old woman, the ancient female self.

Recently fossils of two women, a boy, and an infant, dated roughly at 2 million years old were found in the African plains by the 9-year-old son of a paleoanthropologist, adding many clues to the changes between Lucy, the 3-million-year-old woman and the 1.5 million- year-old homo erectus. The fossils are named Australopithecus sediba, southern ape of the wellspring.

The people found by the anthropologist apparently died quickly after falling into a sinkhole and being covered with mud. What they were doing is impossible to tell, and there is as yet not much else known or theorized about them, other than that they could walk upright, if pigeon-toed, with somewhat modern hips and knees, and they could easily climb trees with long, ape-like arms.

The woman was in her late 20s to early 30s, “middle-aged,” as described by one reporter. If the common life expectancy was about 20 years as suggested in The Heart of Listening: A Visionary Approach to Craniosacral Work By Hugh Milne (p. 37), she might have been the boy’s grandmother. Another scholar suggests that the lifespan of Lucy might have been about 45 years, based on dental records, while she might have lived to be in her fifties, since she survived adolescence, at around age 15.

How old is old? Thirty seems to be a milestone, or even 25–the quarter century. But some claim 50 is the new 30, and scientists are studying “super-agers” in their 80s who are mentally and physically as active as their children in their 50s and 60s. A. sebia would have been active…always on foot, at less than 4 feet tall, she was prey, not predator.

There is some evidence of grandmothering being a survival skill. A mathematical model of evolution by the University of Utah suggests that “Grandmas Made Humans Live Longer.”  Chimps do not outlive their reproductive years, dying in their 30s or 40s, but humans, especially in recent centuries, live half again as long as they are fertile. The theory is that with a grandmother to help with the children, there is a better chance of survival, and a longer dependence period allows for more development of brain size and other traits Homo Sap is so proud of.

Based on observation of hunter-gatherer tribes, researchers  found that grandmothers foraged food for their grandchildren, a task not observed in other primates or mammals. The granmother hypothesis suggests that kinship bonds were based in the fact of menopause, with elder women helping to support the their daughter’s children, rather than continuing to bear children.

So the image of the grandmother goes back a long way, and may have contributed to the survival and evolution of the australopithecus into the homo of today, along with the loss of the great forests to the grasslands as the planet warmed up two million years ago.

But why is this grandmother dangerous, and to whom? Why is she the witch, the hag, and the crone?

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