In female mammals, fertility declines abruptly at an advanced age. The human menopause is one example, but reproductive cessation has also been documented in non-human primates, rodents, whales, dogs, rabbits, elephants and domestic livestock. The human menopause has been considered an evolutionary adaptation, assuming that elderly women avoid the increasing complications of continued childbirth to better nurture their current children and grandchildren. But an abrupt reproductive decline might be only a non-adaptive by-product of life-history patterns. Because so many individuals die from starvation, disease and predation, detrimental genetic traits can persist (or even be favoured) as long as their deleterious effects are delayed until an advanced age is reached, and, for a given pattern of mortality, there should be an age by which selection would be too weak to prevent the onset of reproductive senescence. We provide a systematic test of these alternatives using field data from two species in which grandmothers frequently engage in kin-directed behaviour. Both species show abrupt age- specific changes in reproductive performance that are characteristic of menopause. But elderly females do not suffer increased mortality costs of reproduction, nor do post-reproductive females enhance the fitness of grandchildren or older children. Instead, reproductive cessation appears to result from senescence.