In Many ways children shape our future — through their love of new things (particularly technology), ability to think outside the box and the ease with which they greet many new experiences and situations.
Now scientists are considering the importance of children in shaping not only the development of our complex cultures, but our evolution as a species.
To explore the possibilities, psychologists, primatologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists alike are studying how children learn, how they interpret and influence the world around them and how long ago such behaviour may have begun.
At this time, it appears that “kids have been kids” for many thousands of years — at the very least — and perhaps for much longer.
Hunter-gatherer child’s play
To establish how kids thousands — even millions — of years ago spent their time and influenced their communities, scientists have begun looking at present day hunting-gathering-fishing communities, as humans have provided for themselves and their families this way through most of humanity’s existence.
Do these children play, and what with? What do they learn and when? What are their roles in their families and in the broader community?
Anthropologists working in fishing, hunting and gathering communities across the globe report little boys practising with tiny hunting equipment either made by themselves or their relatives, while girls practice the skills they will need to be fully functioning members of their community — such as basket-making and collecting food — using tiny versions of the tools used in these activities.
Both boys and girls are seen making figures of animals, people, and everyday items from mud, as well as playing with dolls or animal figurines made and given to them by their families.
All this sounds familiar because in modern Western societies kids also enjoy mimicking their parents in their everyday activities — tidying up the yard, helping with food preparation, even tending to the baby.
Learning to be adults
Researchers have identified traces in the archaeological record of children learning how to make stone tools — the staple of most human technology until quite recently (in archaeological terms).
Just last year, Israeli archaeologist Ella Assaf and her team uncovered evidence for young hominins learning how to make flint tools, butcher animals, and master other skills necessary to survive day-to-day life 400,000 years ago at Qesem Cave in Israel.
For those who haven’t tried it, successfully making a stone tool is far harder than you might think. Knapping is a complex activity requiring precise motor skills and an understanding of how tool-stone fractures.
At Qesem Cave, Ms Assaf has found signs of skilled stone workers working with beginners — in other words, teaching.
Finds along similar lines have also be found in Palaeolithic European contexts (45,000 to 11,000 years ago), such as at Magdalenian sites like Pincevent and Etoilles found in the Paris Basin, France.
Here, researchers were able to study the distribution of stone artefacts across their sites to ascertain that student flintknappers were practicing in locations were away from the central activity areas (such as where cooking was being undertaken).
By looking carefully at small engravings on bone and antler in other French Magdalenian (21,000 to 14,000 years ago) sites, researchers have been able to suggest the presence of children learning how to create the artwork which has made this period famous (think of the Lascaux rock art paintings).
The search for prehistoric playthings
While we have been steadily finding more and more evidence for how children learnt the necessary skills for adult life, those items which we most strongly associate with childhood — toys — are only just beginning to surface.
New research into what children might have been playing with in the deep past suggests that archaeologists should be finding tiny copies of the everyday tools their parents were using — such as weapons, domestic utensils, baskets.
They should also be finding clay figurines and dolls made from the raw materials most common to their environment.
The challenge at the moment is determining which tiny items were children’s toys and which were votives used in adult ritual practices — for miniature artefacts could be either (or even both).
Fortunately, archaeologists have a number of avenues to tease out which is which.
For example, we are currently looking at whether the wear (damage, polish, residues) children’s figurines accrue during play might be distinctive enough to allow prehistoric examples to be positively identified.
Small carvings in small graves
There is also evidence that gives us glimpses into the role children may have had within their communities. Most enigmatic is child-sized footprints in the clay and sand floors of caves decorated with paintings and engravings during the Palaeolithic.
We’ve also found prints belonging to infants and, at a site called Fontanet (France), handprints of a 5-year-old. Hand stencils belonging to children are also noted at sites including Altamira (Spain), Cosquer (France), and at Gargas (France) where a baby’s hand was apparently held by an adult while colourant was blown over the both of them.
Marks called “finger-flutings” — where a finger has been dragged through a soft cave floor or wall to create lines — have also be found. At Rouffignac (France), such marks were made by children aged between 2 and 5 years of age, with the aid of adults who hoisted them aloft to create their marks in otherwise unreachable places.
These tiny marks have lead to suggestions that initiation rites or other significant social events were held in the deep caves, though others have suggested the marks simply represent youthful exploration.
Skeletal remains are the best archaeological context — after marks in caves — in which Palaeolithic children are represented. This includes both intentionally and non-intentionally buried children, some found with no or very few grave goods, while others were discovered with substantial assemblages of offerings.
Things buried with these children included jewellery of shell and ivory beads and pierced teeth, tools, and small carvings of animals.
The abundance of grave goods in some of these graves, particularly of items which take significant time and effort to produce — such as the masses of ivory beads found within a Gravettian double child burial at Sunghir (Russia) — has lead researchers to suggest either that they reflect the importance of children in Palaeolithic societies, or that status was inherited from their parents rather than gained by their own individual achievements.
With much research remaining to be done regarding the activities and roles of children thousands of years ago, we are only really beginning to scratch the surface.
For what we have thus far learnt, however, it seems very possible that by focusing on past kids, we might be able to better understand how our minds and societies developed into the complex organisms we see today.
Dr Michelle C. Langley is an Australian Research Council DECRA research fellow in the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution at Griffith University.
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