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New research shows how evolution explains age of puberty

Published: 
30 November 2005

This is the message of Professors Mark Hanson and Peter Gluckman, whose review of the evolution of puberty is published online this week in Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism.

Hanson and Gluckman, who respectively head the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) at the University of Southampton, and the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, researched the age of puberty stretching back beyond the Stone Age.

They found that Paleolithic girls arrived at menarche - the first occurrence of menstruation - between seven and 13 years. This is a similar age to modern girls, which suggests that this is the evolutionarily determined age of puberty in girls.

"This would have matched the degree of psychosocial maturation necessary to function as an adult in Paleolithic society based on small groups of hunter-gatherers," they write.

Disease and poor nutrition became more common as humans settled, causing puberty to be delayed. Modern hygiene, nutrition and medicine have allowed the age of menarche to fall to its original range.

However, today there is a mismatch between sexual maturity and psychosocial maturity, with sexual maturity occurring much earlier. This mismatch is a result of society becoming vastly more complex, with psychosocial maturity therefore taking longer to reach.

"For the first time in our 200,000 year history as a species, humans become sexually mature before becoming psychologically equipped to function as adults in society," explains Professor Hanson.

"All our social systems work on the presumption that the two types of maturity coincide. But this is no longer the case and never will be again because we cannot change biological reality. We have to work out a new set of structures - schooling, for example - to deal with this reality."

Notes for editors

  1. The Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) is a world-leader in research into how early development in the womb and early years of life impacts on disease and health in later life. The University of Southampton is leading the way in research into the early life processes which can lead to chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis and cancer. The University is building a state-of-the-art centre, based at Southampton General Hospital, dedicated to this research. The new building will house four floors of laboratories and lecture theatres.
  2. The University of Southampton is one of the UK's top 10 research-led universities, with a global reputation for excellence in both teaching and research. With first-rate opportunities and facilities across a wide range of subjects in science and engineering, health, arts and humanities, the University has around 20,000 students and 5000 staff at its campuses in Southampton and Winchester. Its annual turnover is in the region of £274 million.
    Southampton is recognised internationally for its leading-edge research in engineering, science, computer science and medicine, and for its strong enterprise agenda. It is home to world-leading research centres, including the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton; the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research; the Optoelectronics Research Centre; the Textile Conservation Centre; the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease; and the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies.

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