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Watch: Why Are Humans The Only Species to Suffer Through Puberty?

FIONA MACDONALD
27 OCT 2015

We humans have quite a lot in common with our primate cousins - opposable thumbs, our use of tools, and the vast majority of our DNA - but one thing we don't share is the long, hellish years of puberty and adolescence. In fact, humans are the only species known to go through the awkward stage of development at all. But why? The latest episode of How Did We Get Here?, produced by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia, explains some of the leading theories for our "long and weird life cycle".

 

The advent of adolescence is thought to have coincided with the origin of our species around 200,000 years ago, since evidence of it hasn't yet been seen in our Neanderthal ancestors. And it's kinda weird when you think about it, because all other species out there grow pretty consistently through their lives, maturing along the way before transitioning directly from infancy to adulthood.

Humans on the other hand do something a little different. For starters, we wean a lot earlier than other primates, which don't stop feeding their young until around seven years of age. In humans, this usually happens by around two or three years, after a rapid period of growth on the part of the baby.

That's a pretty easy strategy to explain, as it allows human females to get back to breeding a lot quicker, and has allowed our population to grow as rapidly as it has. But human children then continue to grow pretty slowly for the next eight to 10 years, before they suddenly get assaulted with all kinds of crazy hormones as they enter puberty.

During this time, not only do humans reach sexual maturity, but we also shoot up - growing on average 9 to 10 centimetres a year before slowing down in our late teenage years.

There are a few possible explanations for this evolutionary strategy, which we'll let UNSW evolutionary biologist Darren Curnoe explain in the video, but one thing's certain - you can rest assured that humans wouldn't continue to go through such a tumultuous time if it didn't have some kind of big evolutionary benefit. And that may have something to do with the complex society we've found ourselves living in.

So I suppose we have all the acne, body shame, and rollercoaster emotions to thank for somehow surviving as a species. Gee, thanks evolution.

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