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23 February 2018
Footprints of prehistoric children tell a story

Perceptions of childhood vary greatly with geography, culture and time. Fossil footprints present a record of childhood very different from that of life in Western society.
     Footprints preserved in the Sand Sea of Namibia from about 1,500 years ago were made by a small group of children - some as young as three years - walking across a drying mud surface after a flock of sheep or goats, in the company of slightly older children and perhaps young adolescents. Trusted to care for animals from an early age, the children's tracks also reveal playful hops, skips, and jumps.
     Children possibly as young as one or two years left footprints at a site in Southern Ethiopia. They probably belonged to the extinct species Homo heidelbergensis (600,000 to 200,000 years ago), and occur next to adult prints and an abundance of animal tracks congregated around a small, muddy pool. Stone tools and the butchered remains of a hippo were also found. These were all soon covered by an ash flow from a nearby volcano dated to 700,000 years ago.
     A wealth of ethnographic evidence from modern, culturally distinct human societies shows babies and children are often expected to contribute to activities that support the mother, and the wider family group, according to their abilities. In many societies, small boys tend to help with herding, while young girls are preferred as babysitters. Interestingly, adult tools - like axes, knives, machetes, even firearms - are often freely available to children as part of learning. There may be little time or space to simply be a child, in the sense that we would recognise.
     The roughly 7,000-year-old Monte Hermoso Human Footprint Site in Argentina contains predominantly the small tracks of children and women, preserved in coastal sediments. It has been suggested that the children may have played an important role in gathering seafood or coastal resources. Similarly, most of the 15,000-year-old tracks in the carved and painted Tuc d'Audoubert Cave in France are those of children, who may have been present when the figures were drawn.

Edited from PhysORG (13 February 2018)

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