Children of the Ice Age

With the help of new archaeological approaches, our picture of young lives in the Palaeolithic is now marvellously vivid

by April Nowell + BIO

The sun rises on the Palaeolithic, 14,000 years ago, and the glacial ice that once blanketed Europe continues its slow retreat. In the daylight, a family begins making its way toward a cave at the foot of a mountain near the Ligurian Sea, in northern Italy. They’re wandering across a steppe covered in short, dry grasses and pine trees. Ahead, the cave’s entrance is surrounded by a kaleidoscope of wildflowers: prickly pink thistles, red-brown mugworts, and purple cornflowers.

But before entering, this hunter-gatherer family stops to collect the small, thin branches of a pine tree. Bundled together, covered with resin and set alight, these branches will become simple torches to illuminate the cave’s darkened galleries. The group is barefoot and the path into the cave is marked by footprints in the soft earth and mud. There are traces of two adults, a male and female, with three children: a three-year-old toddler, a six-year-old child, and an adolescent no older than 11. Canine paw prints nearby suggest they may be accompanied by pets.

Carrying pine torches, they enter the base of the mountain. At around 150 metres inside, the family reaches a long, low corridor. Walking in single file, with only flickering firelight to guide them, they hug the walls as they traverse the uneven ground. The youngest, the toddler, is at the rear. The corridor soon turns to a tunnel as the ground slopes upward, leaving less than 80 cm of space to crawl through. Their knees make imprints on the clay floor. After a few metres, the ceiling reaches its lowest point and the male adult stops. He then pauses, likely evaluating whether the next section is too difficult for the littlest in the group. But he decides to press on, and the family follows, with each member pausing in the same spot before continuing. Further into the cave, they dodge stalagmites and large blocks, navigate a steep slope, and cross a small underground pond, leaving deep footprints in the mud. Finally, they arrive at an opening, a section of the cave that archaeologists from a future geological epoch will call ‘Sala dei Misteri’ (the ‘Chamber of Mysteries’).

While the adults make charcoal handprints on the ceiling, the youngsters dig clay from the floor and smear it on a stalagmite, tracing their fingers in the soft sediment. Each tracing corresponds to the age and height of the child who made it: the tiniest markings, made with a toddler’s fingers, are found closest to the ground.

Eventually, the family accomplished what it had set out to do, or perhaps simply grew bored. Either way, after a short while in the chamber, they made their way out of the cave, and into the light of the last Ice Age.

This family excursion in 12,000 BCE may sound idyllic or even mundane. But, in the context of anthropology and archaeology, small moments like these represent a new and radical way of understanding the past. It wasn’t until 1950, when the cave was rediscovered and named ‘Bàsura’, that the story of this family’s excursion began to be uncovered. Decades later, scientists such as the Italian palaeontologists Marco Avanzini and his team would use laser scanning, photogrammetry, geometric morphometrics (techniques for analysing shape) and a forensic approach to study the cave’s footprints, finger tracings and handprints. These little traces paint a very different prehistorical picture to the one normally associated with life 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, toward the end of the last Ice Age, during a prehistoric period known as the Upper Palaeolithic.

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?

As anyone who excavates fossils will tell you, finding evidence of Ice Age children is difficult. It’s not just that their small, fragile bones are hard to locate. To understand why we forget about them in our reconstructions of prehistory, we also need to consider our modern assumptions about children. Why do we imagine them as ‘naive’ figures ‘free of responsibility’? Why do we assume that children couldn’t contribute meaningfully to society? Researchers who make these assumptions about children in the present are less likely to seek evidence that things were different in the past.

But using new techniques, and with different assumptions, the children of the Ice Age are being given a voice. And what they’re saying is surprising: they’re telling us different stories, not only about the roles they played in the past, but also about the evolution of human culture itself.

Human bones are fragile things, but some are more fragile than others. The larger, denser bones of adults tend to be better preserved in the archaeological record than those of children, whose bones are more like a bird’s than an elephant’s: they are smaller, more porous and less mineralised, lack tensile and compressive strength, and may not be fully fused to their shafts (in the case of long bones). These skeletons are more vulnerable to both sedimentary pressure (when buried underground) and erosion from acidic soil and biodegrading organic matter. This is one of the main reasons why telling the stories of prehistoric children has been so difficult.

Burying the child in clothing that took so long to make speaks to the community’s grief

But they’re not only poorly preserved. The small size of some remains means they can be easily missed. I experienced this when I worked at an archaeological site called Drimolen in South Africa, 40 km north of Johannesburg. Archaeologists working here have dated the site to between 1.5 and 2 million years old, and have uncovered the remains of more than 80 individuals who are early members of the Homo genus and the Paranthropus robustus species, another ancient human lineage. Close to 50 per cent of the uncovered remains were identified as children under 10 years old – far more than has been recovered from similar sites in the region (but a figure that is more in line with estimates of Ice Age demographics). One reason for this difference is the rigorous screening protocol followed by the project’s team. Every cubic centimetre of earth that is excavated at Drimolen is dry-sieved to pick out larger pieces, then placed on medium- and fine-mesh screens and cleaned with running water. The remaining sediment is spread out on a table, ready to be sorted. During my time at Drimolen, I spent countless hours searching for even the tiniest human tooth, hidden among stones and the skeletal remains of rodents and other small animals.

The act of burial also accounts for the disappearance of children from the archaeological record. Children throughout time have often been buried in remote locations or shallow graves without a coffin or grave marker. The reason for these practices has to do with the different ways societies treat the dead based on age, sex, social status and other factors. This does not mean these children were not loved or that there was not a sense of grief at their passing, but it can make locating their final resting places difficult for archaeologists.

However, not all children were buried in unmarked graves. Some were given spectacular burials, and these exceptions help us further understand the lives of children in the past. A case in point comes from an estimated 10,000-year-old overhanging rock shelter in France called Abri de la Madeleine. Here, a young child of three to seven years of age was laid to rest surrounded by three limestone slabs, which formed a protective barrier around their head. Hundreds of white shell beads (see figure below), produced by carving (or snapping) tusk-shaped Dentalium shells to around 6-7 mm in length, were found at the child’s head, elbows, wrists, knees and ankles and around their neck. According to the archaeologists Francesco d’Errico and Marian Vanhaeren, an unbroken Dentalium shell could produce around two tiny, tube-shaped beads, which means it would likely have taken 15-20 hours to produce the nine metres of beads found embroidered onto the child’s clothing (long since rotted away). D’Errico and Vanhaeren believe that, depending on the skill of the person making it, this garment would have required 30-50 hours to complete. Burying the child in clothing that took so long to make speaks to the grief the community must have felt at their passing.

A portion of the shell beads found in the La Madeleine child burial. The beads are heavily worn, suggesting they were not made specifically for the burial. Items held by the Museum of Prehistory, Les Eyzies, France, and photo courtesy of Francesco d’Errico

For 20 years, I have taught a class on the archaeology of children in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Victoria in Canada. I begin every semester by asking my undergraduate students what they think of when they hear the words ‘child’ and ‘childhood’. Invariably, they use words and phrases such as ‘naive’, ‘playful’, ‘joyful’ and ‘free of responsibility’. I am not sure whether these words reflect their actual experiences of being a child (memory is often a tricky thing) or their nostalgia for an imagined childhood, but Western archaeologists often bring these same assumptions with them when they study the archaeological record. If you assume that children can’t or shouldn’t contribute to society in the present – economically, politically or culturally – then you are less likely to look for evidence that they did in the past.

These assumptions are changing. A growing body of ethnographic and archaeological research is revealing the ways these forgotten figures have always contributed to the welfare of their communities and themselves. Herding, fetching water, harvesting vegetables, running market stalls, collecting firewood, tending animals, cleaning and sweeping, serving as musicians, working as soldiers in times of war, and caring for younger siblings are all common examples of tasks taken on by children around the world and across time. These tasks leave their mark in the archaeological record.

By making stone tools, children contributed to the success of their entire community

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.

At a roughly 15,000-year-old site called Solvieux in France, the archaeologist Linda Grimm uncovered evidence of a novice stone-knapper, likely a child or adolescent, working on a tool. Sitting to the side of the site, the novice began hitting a core with the hammerstone. After encountering some difficulty, they brought the core they were working on to a more experienced knapper sitting in the centre of the site near a hearth. We know this because the flint flakes produced by the novice and the expert were found mixed together. After receiving help, the novice continued knapping in this central area until the core was eventually exhausted and discarded. While the tools made by the expert knapper were taken away for some task, those made by the novice were left behind. At other sites, novices sat closer to expert knappers as they practised, presumably so they could ask questions and observe the experts while they worked, or just share stories and songs.

Of course, not all novices were children. But in the Palaeolithic, when your very survival depended on being able to hunt and butcher an animal, process plants, make cordage, and dig up roots and tubers, making a stone tool was essential. Everyone would have had to learn to knap from a young age and, by the time novices were eight or nine years old, they would have developed most of the cognitive and physical abilities necessary to undertake more complex knapping, increasing in proficiency as they entered adolescence. By making stone tools, children provided not only for themselves but for their younger siblings too, contributing to the success of their entire community.

All work and no play? Not quite. Other studies of footprints, this time from 13,000-year-old sites in Italy and France, document children and teens running around playing tag, making ‘perfect’ footprints the way kids do today at the beach, and throwing clay balls at each other and at stalagmites – some of the pellets missed their targets and remain on the cave floor. Skills were honed through play in other ways: at Palaeolithic sites in Russia, researchers found 29 clay objects that, by analysing traces of fingerprints, were determined to be made by children between the ages of six and 10, and adolescents between 10 and 15. Ethnographically, we know that children often begin to learn ceramics by first playing with clay, making toy animals and serving bowls. Another way to see children at play in the Palaeolithic is to look for them in secret or small spaces too tiny for an adult body. Near Étiolles in northern France, archaeologists uncovered a Palaeolithic settlement. However, down from this occupied area, out of view of the settlement, they also found stone tools made by novices, as well as animal bones. This may have been a Palaeolithic clubhouse, with everything an Ice Age child would need: privacy, things to do, and snacks. And at Las Chimeneas cave in Spain, the archaeologist Leslie Van Gelder, seeking evidence of children, documented lines drawn by tiny fingers in the soft sediment on the underside of a low, narrow overhang.

Ironically, though this playful behaviour has given us a window into the lives of Palaeolithic children, it has been another reason why children have been understudied by archaeologists. For some archaeologists, this behaviour appears so random and unpredictable that it renders Ice Age children not only unknown but unknowable. There is a joke among archaeologists that we label an artefact as ‘ceremonial’ if its purpose is not readily discernible. Similarly, an artefact that is found in an unusual location is often explained away as the remains of a child’s play. By playing, children of the past are argued to ‘distort’ the archaeological record. As a result, ethnographic data and personal anecdotes are often used as cautionary tales.

Children’s use and modification of objects simply adds to the rich history of an artefact’s ‘life’

For example, take this article by Gawain Hammond and Norman Hammond published in American Antiquity, a flagship journal in our field. It’s titled ‘Child’s Play: A Distorting Factor in Archaeological Distribution’ (1981). The catch is that the first (or what academics call ‘senior’) author, Gawain, was just over a year old at that time. His father, Norman, a British archaeologist specialising in Mesoamerica, decided to engage in experimental archaeology. In a vacant area of grassland, Norman created an artificial trash heap composed of nonbiodegradable materials, including half-gallon wine bottles, liquor bottles and juice cans, a beer bottle and aluminium beer cans (some partly crushed).

During the following three days, the senior author, at the time 1.2 years old, engaged in ‘child-play’ activities at and around the trash pile for a total of three 30-minute periods; concentration on the task for more than 30 minutes at one time was difficult, although it was, even in the solitary mode, one with which the experimenter was familiar. All locomotion during the experiment was quadrupedal or tripedal (when one hand was used to move an artefact).

The senior author proceeded to roll bottles downhill, ‘casually’ toss cans in the air, remove pull-tabs and generally scatter trash around the lot. Norman made some preliminary conclusions after the second 30-minute period:

During the same session one of the wine jars previously rolled was picked up, the screw cap removed, and various pieces of bark and twig from the path inserted into the jar. The discovery of such unexpected vessel contents in many archaeological contexts would be regarded as the result of structured ‘ritual’ behaviour; the present observation shows that similarly nonlogical circumstances can result from unstructured ‘child-play’.

However, a growing number of archaeologists have argued that children distort the archaeological record only if we think that our task as scientists is to reconstruct the behaviour of adults. If we think our goal is to reconstruct human behaviour more broadly, then children’s use and modification of objects simply adds to the rich history of an artefact’s ‘life’ or its ‘biography’.

For more than 200 years, children have been neglected by archaeologists. It was part of a disciplinary bias towards adult men in archaeological interpretations. This began to change in the 1970s and ’80s with the rise of feminist archaeology and the archaeology of gender, led by archaeologists from the University of California at Berkeley such as Margaret Conkey, Ruth Tringham and Rosemary Joyce. The approaches advocated by these female scholars critically examined the roles of women in the past and, by extension, children started to become ‘visible’ too. But it is only in recent years that youngsters have truly emerged from the shadows. This emergence is part of a growing movement within archaeology to diversify voices in the past by exploring cultural constructs of age, gender, sexuality, and identity (although it should be noted that the elderly remain understudied).

The archaeology of children and childhood more specifically is most often traced back to the pioneering work of the Norwegian archaeologist Grete Lillehammer who, in 1989, made a call to action. She challenged archaeologists to integrate children meaningfully into their research by asking questions about children’s relationships to the environment, to adults, and to each other. This challenge has been taken up by researchers such as Traci Ardren whose most recent project focuses on Mayan child-kings; Kathryn Kamp who studies how Sinagua children from northern Arizona (1100-1250 CE) learned to make ceramics; and Jane Eva Baxter who has explored 19th-century children’s graffiti in the Bahamas. Many other researchers are now studying children from prehistory to ancient Egypt, classical Greece and beyond.

In hindsight, it seems so obvious that archaeologists should be studying children, particularly from prehistory. If children comprised around half (or more) of prehistoric populations, and if prehistory accounts for 99.83 per cent of humans’ time on Earth, then ignoring the contributions of children means that a large portion of the available data is not being taken into consideration in the reconstruction of past lifeways. While that fact alone would be reason enough to study children, there is another one, perhaps more important. The lives of these young individuals who lived in the Palaeolithic – cave explorers, stone tool-carvers, toy makers – are all part of a much larger story about how prehistoric children learned about the world and how they shared that knowledge. Drawing on data from cognitive science, developmental psychology and ethnographic fieldwork, archaeologists studying children are developing ideas about the evolution of human culture and how learned behaviour allowed our species to spread across the planet.

Becoming full members of a community involves a lot of learning for children, as expert knowledge-holders (usually adults) help them acquire culturally relevant behaviour. But it can be difficult for novices – what psychologists refer to as ‘naive learners’ – to figure out what behaviours and knowledge are most important. As any parent knows, these naive learners are not passive in the process. They increasingly choose what to learn and whom they want to learn from. Initially, children learn through vertical knowledge transmission (parent to child) but, as they grow older, their peers exert greater influence, and thus horizontal learning becomes more important (child to child). By the time children reach adolescence, ‘oblique learning’ predominates, and all adults in the community, not just parents, can transmit knowledge.

The cultural anthropologist Sheina Lew-Levy and her colleagues saw this up close when they studied tool innovation among children and teens in modern foraging societies. ‘Tool innovation’ means using new tools, or old tools in new ways, to solve problems. The team observed that adolescents seek out adults they identify as innovators to learn tasks such as basketry, hide working, and hunting. Furthermore, these adolescents are the main recipients and transmitters of innovations. Those of us of a certain age can remember helping our parents program their first VCRs in the same way that teens now introduce their parents to the latest apps.

Many other parts of the cave are filled with lines drawn by tiny hands

As our species spread across the globe in the Palaeolithic, the way that children and adolescents adopted innovations would have been a key factor in how well humans solved problems as we adapted to new environments. Child-sized tools have been found at many Palaeolithic sites, and even full-sized spears were included in the burials of children in Russia.

Tools are important, but so are relationships. The social context of how children and adolescents learn is at the heart of what archaeologists call ‘cumulative culture’ and one of the main reasons why it is so important to focus on the lives of youngsters from the Palaeolithic. Knowing how to survive in this challenging environment – learning what plants are poisonous, how to avoid dangerous animals, where to find food in times of drought, and how to maintain alliances with your neighbours – would have been beyond the capacity of any one mind. Instead, it took the collective knowledge of many minds working together and augmented over time for human society to flourish. The children of prehistory played a central role in this flourishing.

In speaking about cumulative culture, researchers often use the metaphor of a ratchet. A ratchet is a tool with angled teeth that allows movement only in one direction. This is an appropriate metaphor for cumulative culture because each generation builds on the knowledge of the generation that came before.

The evolutionary psychologist Michelle Scalise Sugiyama has argued that one of the most powerful vehicles of cumulative culture is oral storytelling. The human ability to live vicariously through the experiences of others is particularly important in situations that are dangerous or occur only rarely. For example, when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit the Indonesian island of Simeulue in 2004, only seven of its 75,000 inhabitants died because the vast majority fled to higher ground having remembered stories their grandparents told them as children, about a tsunami in 1907.

Museum copy of the ‘Lions Panel’ from the walls of the Chauvet cave, France. Courtesy Wikipedia

Scenes in Palaeolithic art were likely visual components of oral stories that would have passed from one generation to the next, and Palaeolithic children would have learned from the images around them. Across southwest France and northern Spain, more than 300 caves have been found containing paintings and engravings dating between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago. Think of the 35,000-year-old painting of a pack of lions hunting a mammoth on the walls of Chauvet cave in France, or an unusual 17,000-year-old painting of a bull with its entrails hanging out, or a man with a bird’s face, or a defecating rhinoceros, or the spear-thrower at Lascaux.

A bird-headed man and a bison depicted on the wall of the Lascaux cave, France. Courtesy Wikipedia

In Rouffignac cave, archaeologists observed two tectiforms, one of many symbols found in cave art whose shape roughly resembles an arrow pointing upward with a horizontal line along its base. While some researchers have suggested that it may symbolise a shelter of some kind, the truth is that its specific meaning is likely lost to us now. Nonetheless, what is special about the two found in Rouffignac is that one tectiform is large, drawn with adult-sized fingers at the height of an adult, while the other is smaller, drawn with a child’s fingers and located much closer to the ground. We know the smaller tectiform was drawn second because its lines cross those of the larger symbol. Many other parts of the cave are filled with lines drawn by tiny hands. This is not just ‘child’s play’. It’s an example of a novice engaging in the symbolic world of adults in their community.

Shared knowledge and cumulative culture, expressed through complex technologies, cultural institutions and symbol systems, are what made our way of life possible. For example, under glacial conditions, plants and animals can, over generations, migrate southward. Humans working together and pooling their knowledge can also migrate south but, in addition, they can alter their hunting strategies, create fire, sew warm clothing and build shelters. These adaptations, which can occur within a lifetime, can be passed on to future generations and then adapted for further learning opportunities. Cumulative culture, often driven by children, has allowed humans to transform landscapes and inhabit virtually every continent on the planet.

Children had a critical and defining (but often underappreciated) influence on how human culture developed and continues to develop. As the ones carrying cumulative culture forward into the next generation, they are the primary drivers of human cultural evolution. Not only are they early adopters of innovations, they are also responsible for the selective loss or winnowing of cumulative culture – not all technologies, strategies or even stories remain relevant or compelling.

The future of studying the past may well lie in our continued efforts to reconstruct the lives of these Ice Age influencers. They were children who loved and were loved; who experienced hunger and pain, but also joy; who played games, made art and occupied ‘secret spaces’; who listened to stories and made music; who learned to hunt, gather and fish; and who produced ceramics, stone tools and, sometimes, little footprints in soft mud.