Finding Neanderthal Children In the Archaeological Record: Is There A Subconcious Bias?

PalArch’s Journal of Archaeology of Northwest Europe has an interesting article on toolmaking by Neanderthal children (see here for my previous post on the subject of children in the archaeological record). The article makes extensive use of research by Phillip Shelley, especially this article (if someone out there has access I would appreciate it if you could email me a copy).

The author points out an interesting phenomenon in comparisons between Lower or Middle Paleolithic and Upper Paleolithic assemblages:

As a result, ‘failed flints’ have been described and illustrated only rarely in the literature concerning the older Palaeolithic. Moreover, in almost all cases their presence is attributed to the poor quality of locally available raw material.

In other words, whereas Upper Paleolithic failed flints, and whatnot, are attributed to novice flintknappers, such is not the case with the Lower and Middle Paleolithic. After reviewing a number of Lower and Middle Paleolithic sites that contain flint artifacts that would fit Shelley’s critera for production by beginner or novice knappers the author of the paper concludes with:

It is my conclusion that one should take into account the fact that during the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic quite a lot of flint artefacts must have been left behind by children in the context of learning (knapping) and/or playing. Learning to knap takes years, and we should note that among hunter/gatherers, children younger than 15 years make up more than 40% of the population (Roveland, 2000). In site reports for these periods, however, the possibility of significant contributions by children to the assemblages seems so far to have been largely disregarded, in contrast to publications on the Upper Palaeolithic. It would be interesting to find out what has caused this difference: is it harder to imagine children and their activities when one is dealing with species other than modern humans? The realization that children must be responsible for quite a few flint artefacts may help to understand not only some typological aberrations (e.g. pic-like tools), but also the reason why some sites make a ‘primitive’ impression. Taking into account the activities of children will make our reconstructions of the past not only more plausible and complete, but also more lively and interesting.

Update 1: I have the Shelley article now, thanks everyone.


6 Responses

  1. Interesting idea…
    I can just hear Mrs. Ugh bitching to the teen Neandertal… “You have been sitting around that damned fire all day playing with your flints. Get out and go bring me back something to eat. You don’t see Johnny turning into a flint-nerd! And what the heck are you talking about, mixing cave guanao with charcoal from the campfire??? How as that going to help us put a spear into Mr. Mammoth?”

  2. Here’s a question: How do we know that the “pick-like tools” are “typological aberrations”? I know that when I get something caught in my teeth or gums I am prone to misappropriate local items to pick it out. Has anyone examined the ends of the pick-like tools for organic material?

  3. Ah, the first evidence for toothpicks.

  4. Children may be underrepresented in the archaeological record anyway, for a variety of reasons. When you go back as far as the Lower/Middle Paleolithic, I think there is a distinct possibility that there may be serious underrepresentation of children in the record. Consequently, “learner’s tools” may be underrepresented, too.
    Anne G

  5. According to the article about half of the approximately 500 Neanderthal individuals we have are children. I’m not sure that underrepresentation is an issue in this case. It could be a factor for earlier Homo

  6. Francoise Audouze (CNRS Paris) gave a paper on this subject — Can we hope to identify women’s and children’s activities in Upper Palaeolithic settlements — at the 2005 conference at Rethymno, Crete, Engendering Prehistoric ‘Stratigraphies’. Fascinating. She rated and mapped all flints at her site and found that the ‘worst’ work centred around the campfire, and that quality improved almost in concentric circles as you moved away from the fire. She interpreted this as evidence of the youngest children under the eye of their mothers nearest the fire, and so on. Unfortunately, the papers have not yet been published but you can find the abstract at

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