Space & Innovation

Prehistoric Moms Had Their Hands Full: Photos

Mother's Day as a holiday is only 105 years old, but moms on the human family tree date back to at least 58 million years ago.

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Mother's Day as a holiday is only 105 years old, but moms on the direct and extended human family tree date back to at least 58 million years ago.

That's when Plesiadapis, the oldest known primate-like mammal, lived. Infants were fully formed but helpless, so mothers must have provided a great deal of care. Resembling squirrel-like lemurs, Plesiadapis moms also spent a lot of time scurrying around the ground and in trees.

Fast forward several million years and there is 4.4-million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus, aka "Ardi." "It is as close as we have ever come to finding the last common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans," said Jay Matternes of the Natural Museum of Natural History.

Like Plesiadapis mothers, Ardi moms lived both in the trees and on the ground. These moms probably carried their young. Matternes and his colleagues also believe that dads provided substantial care for their kids.

The species that gave us "Lucy" is 3.9-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis. Slender, toothy and small-brained (but probably still smart), "Lucy" left the trees in favor of terrestrial life.

Zeresenay Alemseged of the California Academy of Sciences told Discovery News that Lucy loved meat and had tools at hand to process foods and items. Cooking, cleaning and caring for kids might therefore have been on the daily schedule of A. afarensis moms.

Homo habilis, dating to 2.33 million years ago, was another tool-toting meat fancier. This species, however, was also on the menu of other carnivores, such as large predatory cats. Homo habilis mothers had to be on guard at all times to protect their children.

Homo erectus, from 1.8 million years ago, was probably the first human ancestor to live in a hunter-gatherer society, according to anthropologist Richard Leakey and others. Use of fire was important to this species. Mothers might have then spent many hours with their families sitting by warming fires.

Homo antecessor, an early member of our genus from Europe, lived 1.2 million years ago. Anthropologist Juan Luis Arsuaga suspects this species had a complex spoken language, since its sense of hearing was suited to understanding speech. H. antecessor moms must have then praised and scolded their kids, comparable to communications between mothers and their children today.

Neanderthals went extinct several thousand years ago, but they interbred with humans before their species died out, according to anthropologist Silvana Condemi. She and her team analyzed the remains of what is believed to be a Neanderthal/modern human love child.

Life must have been tough for Neanderthal mothers, given the frequent harsh cold of their Asian and European environments. Evidence found in caves suggests they and their families often huddled together for warmth and savored big game meals.

Homo floresiensis, nicknamed the Hobbit human, is thought to have gone extinct just 12,000 years ago. The species lived on the Indonesian island of Flores.

Moms were short -- probably only about 3'6" tall. Like Neanderthals, this species also had a tool industry, a fondness for meat -- especially the elephant relative Stegodon -- and often used fire.

Homo sapiens originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago. When some members of the species migrated northward, many inhabited caves and rock shelters for protection and to ward off cold. Home sweet home for moms then was likely a cave with a comforting fire and all family members present. Evidence for early instruments and alcoholic beverages further suggest that families could have entertained themselves with music, dancing and drinking.

Mothers today appear to have come full circle. Just as many past ancestors combined work with childcare, so too do many modern moms. Much has obviously changed over the millennia, but core concerns -- such as protecting children, strengthening family togetherness and safeguarding homes -- remain the same.