Evolutionary Biology

, Volume 39, Issue 4, pp 638–649

Disentangling the Evolution of Early and Late Life History Traits in Humans

Synthesis Paper


Some aspects of human life history are unique among primates. Most notably, humans have a younger weaning age, a later age at first parturition, a shorter female reproductive period, and a longer lifespan than other living hominoid species. Obtaining a better understanding of when and how life history changed during human evolution is important to those studying the evolutionary developmental biology of extinct hominins, as life history traits pace developmental processes. Life history traits are thought to be linked via tradeoffs, such that changes in early life history traits directly affect those that follow later in life, and vice versa. However, it is also worth considering how changes to a single life history trait may indirectly affect other traits by way of modifying selective pressures acting on individuals and groups. For example, because they affect the size and demographic structure of a group, late life history traits (e.g., lifespan) may also affect the evolution of life history traits that occur earlier in life, but by modifying selective pressures acting on juveniles rather than by triggering a physiological tradeoff. This review marks an effort to begin to disentangle the ways in which early and late life history traits may affect each other both directly and indirectly. We concentrate on female life history characteristics. First, we review previous research on the evolution of the postmenopausal lifespan in women. Next we discuss recent findings concerning the relationship between the optimal length of the female reproductive period, mortality, and weaning age that show that selection favors a shorter female reproductive period in the presence of a younger weaning age. We discuss the implications this finding holds for understanding the evolution of life history traits that are of particular interest to developmental biologists.


Allocare Grandmothering Human evolution Longevity Menopause Weaning 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Human EvolutionMax Planck Institute for Evolutionary AnthropologyLeipzigGermany
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyWashington State UniversityPullmanUSA

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