Story At A Glance

  • Humans are one of the few species that go through menopause, or the phase of life in females when menstruation slows down and stops.
  • While menopause happens around mid-life, humans can live for many years after menopause.
  • This difference between age at menopause and age at death may be one of the most beneficial adaptations of our species.

Believe it or not, there isn’t a whole lot of folklore around menopause, the life stage in human female biology when menstruation ends, as does opportunity for reproduction. The first known writings about menopause only goes back to Europe in the 1700s. Several researchers found that traditional and foraging societies don’t even have a word for it. Why do women experience menopause, and is it an adaptation? Susan P. Mattern takes us through the hypotheses trying to explain why menopause is a good thing for our species in her book “The Slow Moon Climbs.”

Grandmother and mother hypotheses

The two main hypotheses are the Grandmother Hypothesis and the Mother Hypothesis, which are similar in that they are related to fitness but have slightly different angles on why menopause is beneficial. The Grandmother Hypothesis says that when a post-menopausal woman helps care for her grandchildren that allows her children to have more children. The Mother Hypothesis says that women go through menopause because it is more beneficial for their evolutionary fitness to help their offspring by taking care of grandchildren than to continue reproducing.

While there isn’t consensus over which hypothesis is more probable, it’s helpful to think about them in the context of how our species evolved and how families and social groups are structured.

On the origin of our species

Why did Homo sapiens, our species, succeed when other Homo species, like Homo erectus, did not? We may never be able to definitively say, but one characteristic that may have helped us was the fact that female humans went through menopause long before the end of their lifespans. This allowed them several years to help their offspring with their children and to contribute to the survival of their communities with food gathering and other work.

In the book, Mattern discusses potential explanations about how menopause allowed our species to expand during good times. Because older women were not reproducing, they could help with their grandchildren, which helped to shorten the time between births. Their expertise in finding food also helped their communities provide for children who depended on adults until their teens. Generally, this strategy could help explain rapid human population growth and expansion when resources were plentiful, giving our species an edge over others.

Foragers and farmers

Mattern takes us through studies of foraging societies and the fertility of women in those communities. In most foraging societies, people lived in groups that were nomadic, moving to wherever they could find food and resources. Everyone depended on each other through food sharing, as well as caring for children.

In comparison, farming societies settled in one place, instead of roaming as groups. The social unit became the family, and the conventions around property and inheritance became part of life. In this century, not many families are farmers anymore, and most people live and work in cities. Modern social structure focuses on the individual as a unit. The role of post-menopausal women as caregivers and providers diminished and gave an opening for differing perceptions on that life stage.

Menopause as a cultural syndrome

While traditional societies do acknowledge that there is a non-reproductive life stage in women, it’s not the apocalyptic and scary event that it’s made out to be in modern and Western societies. Mattern points out that many traditional societies and Asian countries do not have a word for hot flash or even menopause itself. Since the first recorded descriptions of menopause dating back to about the 1700s in Europe, endless volumes about menopausal syndrome and its symptoms have been written. There’s also evidence that the concept of menopause was exported from Western countries to Asian countries like Bangladesh.

Women in traditional societies may not experience many of the menopausal symptoms that women in modern societies experience. And when they do experience symptoms, many do not associate it with menopause, only with old age. Even if you do turn to the research, there may be inherent biases that make that research tricky to interpret, argues Mattern. For example, much of the research is focused on symptoms and views about menopause and typically uses checklists to ask people about their experiences. This may affect how the results are presented and makes assumptions about what causes the symptoms. On top of that, since many study designs don’t ask the subjects about their beliefs, it doesn’t consider whether the subjects believe the symptoms are tied to menopause as opposed to aging.

Menopause as a useful and honorable life stage

Menopause has not only allowed humans to reproduce faster during good times, but has also allowed women to be productive later in life in ways that both help their genes get passed down and help their communities survive. But in modern times, the narrative has turned it into a medical condition full of negative experiences that, for the most part, aren’t statistically linked to menopause.

The book covers a vast amount of material ranging from the early beginnings of our species to today and, although some sections could use better organization, at the crux is an important realization about how menopause is talked about now. In the hundreds of thousands of years of human history, menopause was not considered a medical condition and was most likely an important life stage for the survival of the species. This is not to diminish the symptoms of menopause, but to point out how it is viewed in a largely negative light. Mattern writes, “as my research on this book has progressed I have become increasingly impatient with how it is talked about in my society and how this talk unnecessarily demeans a tradition and a stage of life that are, by any measure, useful and honorable.”

Although the book reads slightly academic compared to popular science books and may be difficult to follow at times, its main points are important for understanding the cultural, biological and anthropological context in which we view and experience menopause. “The transition is important, but not because of the symptoms it may or may not cause us to suffer,” writes Mattern. “It is important on a much larger scale, and to reduce it to a medical condition is to trivialize it.”

Published on Nov 14, 2019