The other thing that elders did, according to David Bainbridge, was to act as the repository for the wisdom of the tribe, the accumulated knowledge of ages, not just about how to be an excellent hunter gatherer, but how to be a human being. This knowledge would be used and passed on by the elders to help the tribe, something which survives today in the idea of the wise old man, an ideal we still yearn for and which pops up in characters like Gandalf and Dumbledore. (Sadly, the idea of the wise old woman has been subverted by Western culture into the archetype of the witch, although it still survives in a few places in its original form – the character of Mo’at in Avatar, for instance).
I’ve been wondering why we’ve lost this idea of the middle-aged and elderly as important and valued members of our society, or whether in fact we ever had at all. It’s easy to romanticise the idea of old age in previous times, when the reality was probably very different. Cider with Rosie gives us a picture of village life in the Cotswolds at the start of the last century which can’t have changed very much in hundreds of years, and old age as depicted therein is certainly not a desirable state. Nor does Shakespeare regard old age as an enviable condition, and if you go back to Sophocles writing in Athens in the fifth century BC you find similarly unpleasant descriptions of the trials and tribulations of the end of life.
The speed of modern scientific and technological advancement can’t have helped; an arrow-head or a plough or a quern wouldn’t have changed much in thousands of years, but we are in a time now of almost unparalleled change. I guess it’s easy to think of the old as useless in this sort of era; if a person can’t work a cash machine or set up a computer or get on Facebook, it’s easy to dismiss them entirely as a total idiot, past it, their knowledge obsolete. Or would it always have been like this? Would young Neanderthals have exclaimed “Oh, Grandpa! NOBODY makes arrows like that any more! It’s all about cross-binding. NOBODY does round-and-round! Durr!!”