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Fragmentary atlatl handles: One (left) has been designed to fit comfortably in an adult’s hand, and one (right) seems to have been designed for a child’s hand.

Robert Losey

Playing with tools—and weapons—was a ‘normal’ part of prehistoric childhood

Prehistoric children may have been cherished by their parents—but until recently, they’ve been neglected by many archaeologists, who assumed that childhood is simply about toys and games. Now, a new study adds to the growing literature that prehistoric children were hard workers, who learned from an early age to use the weapons and tools that would help them with the rigors of adulthood.

This latest study of ancient children at work started accidentally. Archaeologists Robert Losey and Emily Hull at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, were examining artifacts from a 1700-year-old refuse pile at a site on Oregon’s coast, an area historically home to Chinookan- and Salish-speaking populations. Among the finds were the broken remains of several atlatls—handheld spear-throwing tools that were, until the invention of the bow and arrow, one of humankind’s deadliest hunting implements. But some of the broken atlatls looked different.

“They were just not made for adult-sized hands,” Losey says. Instead, they appeared to be scaled-down versions for children. Perhaps, the researchers speculate, adults fashioned the tiny tools so that youngsters could begin to hone the hunting skills they would later need, the researchers report this month in Antiquity. “To be a successful hunter you really needed to have mastery over the atlatl,” Losey says. The tool has almost—but not quite—vanished from the hunter’s toolkit today, but some studies suggest it takes years to gain full proficiency.

Losey and Hull’s speculation lines up with what researchers observe in many societies today, says David Lancy, an anthropologist emeritus at Utah State University in Logan. From an early age, children are allowed to interact with the tools adults use to work, forage, and hunt, often with no parental supervision. Babies suck on sharp knives; toddlers play with machetes.

Many studies suggest children who play with tools quickly transition to working with them. Four-year-olds among the Maniq people of Thailand can easily skin and gut small animals, for example. And according to Douglas Bird, an anthropologist at Pennsylvania State University in State College, children among the Hadza of Tanzania are adept foragers. One study suggests that in some seasons, 5-year-olds can gather half their daily calories by themselves.

Prehistoric children may well have had this leaning, too. But it is only within the past 20 years that archaeologists have begun to consider that ancient children were productive members of their societies, says Jane Eva Baxter, an archaeologist at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. Even today, “There is still an overreliance on looking for toys,” she says.

Other recent finds include child-size flint points in children’s burials in prehistoric Sweden and miniature Viking weapons and food-processing tools found as far east as Russia and as far west as Greenland. Young Vikings likely had fun playing with such objects, says Ben Raffield, an archaeologist at Uppsala University in Sweden, but doing so also probably accelerated their transition into the adult world. Skeletal evidence suggests, for example, that many Viking teens were also army fighters.

Lancy says these insights might hold lessons for parents in today’s postindustrial societies. For many such parents, the idea of a working child is seen as an aberration, in part because it conjures up images of child exploitation in factories or mines. But Lancy says there is an important distinction to be made between “child labor” in an unhealthy work environment and what researchers have dubbed “children’s work,” which takes place within the family and involves learning useful skills—like how to use an atlatl—that are beneficial throughout life. Anthropological studies show that “children’s work” is a normal feature of childhood in most societies today, Lancy says—and archaeological finds such as the small atlatls suggest this has been the case for millennia.

Anecdotal evidence suggests some children prefer it that way. After Bird and his wife, Penn State anthropologist Rebecca Bliege Bird, spent years living with the Martu people of Australia’s Western Desert, for example, their own children had a hard time transitioning back to life in the United States. They had gotten used to the autonomy of Martu children, who proudly catch, cook, and eat small lizards without adult help. As one father among the Dusun people of North Borneo said to an anthropologist concerned that his child was playing with knives: “How can you learn to use a knife if you do not use it?”