In this fascinating Aeon piece, archaeologist April Nowell explores our changing understanding of Paleolithic childhood and how modern socio-cultural prejudices, along with the difficulty in finding skeletal remains of children, have caused us to overlook or greatly underestimate the role that adolescents played during the last Ice Age.
Asked to imagine what life looked like for humans from this era, a 20th-century archaeologist or anthropologist would likely picture the hunting and gathering being done almost exclusively by adults, prompting researchers to write journal articles with titles such as 'Why Don't Anthropologists Like Children?' (2002) and 'Where Have All the Children Gone?' (2001). We forget that the adults of the Palaeolithic were also mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and grandparents who had to make space for the little ones around them. In fact, children in the deep past may have taken up significantly more space than they do today: in prehistoric societies, children under 15 accounted for around half of the world's population. Today, they're around a quarter. Why have children been so silent in the archaeological record? Where are their stories?
Palaeolithic children learning to make stone tools produced hundreds of thousands of stone flakes as they transitioned from novice to expert. These flakes overwhelm the contributions of expert tool-makers in archaeological sites around the world. Archaeologists can recognise the work of a novice because people learning to produce stone tools make similar kinds of mistakes. To make, or 'knap', a stone tool, you need a piece of material such as flint or obsidian, known as a 'core', and a tool to hit it with, known as a 'hammerstone'. The goal is to remove flakes from the stone core and produce a shape blade or some other kind of tool. This involves striking the edge of a core with a hammerstone with a glancing blow. But novices, who were often children or adolescents, would sometimes hit too far towards the middle of a core, and each unskilled hit would leave material traces of their futile and increasingly frustrated attempts at flake removal. At other times, evidence shows that they got the angle right but hit too hard (or not hard enough) resulting in a flake that terminates too soon or doesn't detach from the core.
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