I think that people are starting to come to grips with the idea of pre-Late Pleistocene kids contributing to the archaeological record (e.g., Shea 2006), even if this growing awareness has yet to translate into a systematic incorporation of children’s activities and learning in paleoanthropological interpretation. In spite of this, it’s worth wondering why archaeologists who have studied hominins that were the quintessential hunter-gatherers have taken so long to come to grips with the idea that their social structure and technological transmission mechanisms might parallel those of ethnographically-documented foragers. To take an example based on a prior post, if Neanderthals had life-histories comparable to those of modern humans, there is every reason to believe that the acquisition of essential skills for Upper and Middle Paleolithic foragers would have stretched over a significant period of time. The starting assumption should therefore be that children were important accumulators of likely often ‘odd looking’ archaeological remains.
Stapert highlights that researchers seem to have little problem invoking the activities of children to account for roughshod lithics in Upper Paleolithic assemblages but do not appear inclined to do so for Lower and Middle Paleolithic assemblages. As argued by Shea (2006:214):
“One possible reason for this is that for relatively simple knapping techniques there may be few differences between the byproducts of experienced adults and those of novice knappers. This argument is plausible for pebble-core components of Paleolithic industries, but seems less plausible for the prepared- core components (Acheulean bifaces, Levallois cores, prismatic blade cores, and foliate bifaces) that populate Paleolithic industries from 1.7 Myr onward.”This being the case, Staper asks bluntly but rightly “is it harder to imagine children and their activities when one is dealing with species other than modern humans?” (2007:35).
I would argue that this is almost certainly one of the principal reasons since, to follow up on my earlier example, by not considering the role of Neanderthal children in interpretations of the Middle Paleolithic record, it becomes easier to cast those hominins as different. To a degree, this perspective is reflected by the following kind of circular reasoning: “Well, Neanderthal children surely didn’t play a significant role in the accumulation of that sub/species’ archaeological record. Therefore what we document archaeologically reflects adult, fully competent Neanderthal behavior. But that behavior departs in significant ways from how we expect fully competent, adult Homo sapiens knappers to structure their lithic production and lithotype management. Ergo, we have yet more evidence that Neanderthals were behaviorally distinct from Homo sapiens.”
And here, I think we get to at least some of the heart of the matter – paleoanthropologists as a whole have invested a great deal of time and energy in trying to show how pre-Homo sapiens hominins were distinct from Upper Paleolithic humans rather than attempting to understand them primarily as foraging hominins who were very successful at eking out a living in the Pleistocene Old World. While there are obviously good reasons to do so in certain regards, approaching Neanderthals and earlier hominins first and foremost as foragers independent of preconceptions of how different they must have been is often a very rewarding way of doing archaeology that opens up fruitful interpretive avenues. Of course, one must be careful to not swing the pendulum too far in that direction and become oblivious to the differences that do exist. However, at this stage of the game, I think that the advantages of a self-aware approach to Neanderthals that views them first and foremost as hunter-gatherers outweigh its disadvantages as far as reaching a thorough understanding of the lifeways of non-sapiens hominins – both adult and juvenile – is concerned.
Shea, J. J. 2006. Child’s play: Reflections on the invisibility of children in the Paleolithic record. Evolutionary Anthropology 15: 212-216.
Stapert, D. 2007. Neanderthal children and their flints. Palarch’s Journal of Archaeology of Northwestern Europe 1(2): 16-39.