From the ape's dilemma to the weanling's dilemma: early weaning and its evolutionary context.
Although humans have a longer period of infant dependency than other hominoids, human infants, in natural fertility societies, are weaned far earlier than any of the great apes: chimps and orangutans wean, on average, at about 5 and 7.7 years, respectively, while humans wean, on average, at about 2.5 years. Assuming that living great apes demonstrate the ancestral weaning pattern, modern humans display a derived pattern that requires explanation, particularly since earlier weaning may result in significant hazards for a child. Clearly, if selection had favored the survival of the child, humans would wean later like other hominoids; selection, then, favored some trait other than the child's survival. It is argued here that our unique pattern of prolonged, early brain growth--the neurological basis for human intellectual ability--cannot be sustained much beyond one year by a human mother's milk alone, and thus early weaning, when accompanied by supplementation with more nutritious adult foods, is vital to the ontogeny of our larger brain, despite the associated dangers. Therefore, the child's intellectual development, rather than its survival, is the primary focus of selection. Consumption of more nutritious foods--derived from animal protein--increased by ca. 2.6 myr ago when a group of early hominins displayed two important behavioral shifts relative to ancestral forms: the recognition that a carcass represented a new and valuable food source-potentially larger than the usual hunted prey-and the use of stone tools to improve access to that food source. The shift in the hominin "prey image" to the carcass and the use of tools for butchery increased the amount of protein and calories available, irrespective of the local landscape. However, this shift brought hominins into competition with carnivores, increasing mortality among young adults and necessitating a number of social responses, such as alloparenting. The increased acquisition of meat ca. 2.6 Ma had significant effects on the later course of human evolution and may have initiated the origin of the genus Homo.