View and colour rendered model of the hominin track P-01, belonging to the left foot of an adult

What ancient footprints can tell us about what it was like to be a child in prehistoric times

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Western society has a rather specific view of what a good childhood should be like; protecting, sheltering and legislating to ensure compliance with it. However, perceptions of childhood vary greatly with geography, culture and time. What was it like to be a child in prehistoric times, for example – in the absence of toys, tablets and television?

In our new paper, published in Scientific Reports , we outline the discovery of children’s footprints in Ethiopia which show how children spent their time 700,000 years ago.

We first came across the question of what footprints can tell us about past childhood experiences a few years back while studying some astonishingly beautiful children’s footprints in Namibia, just south of Walvis Bay. In archaeological terms the tracks were young, dating only from around 1,500 years ago. They were made by a small group of children walking across a drying mud surface after a flock of sheep or goats. Some of these tracks were made by children as young as three-years-old in the company of slightly older children and perhaps young adolescents.

Namibian footprints. Matthew Bennett, Author provided

Namibian footprints. Matthew Bennett, Author provided

The detail in these tracks, preserved beneath the shifting sands of the Namibian Sand Sea, is amazing, and the pattern of footfall – with the occasional skip, hop and jump – shows they were being playful. The site also showed that children were trusted with the family flock of animals from an early age and, one assumes, they learnt from that experience how to function as adults were expected to within that culture.

No helicopter parents

But what about the childhood of our earlier ancestors – those that came before anatomically modern humans ( Homo sapiens )? Children’s tracks by Homo antecessor (1.2m to 800,000 years ago) were found at Happisburgh in East Anglia , a site dating to a million years ago. Sadly though, these tracks leave no insight into what these children were doing.


Reconstruction of Homo Heidelbergensis.

Reconstruction of Homo Heidelbergensis. Jose Luis Martinez Alvarez/wikipedia, CC BY-SA

But the footprints described in our recent study – from a remarkable site in the Upper Awash Valley of Southern Ethiopia that was excavated by researchers from the Università di Roma “La Sapienza” – reveal a bit more. The children’s tracks were probably made by the extinct species Homo heidelbergensis (600,000 to 200,000 years ago), occurring 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 at the site, called Melka Kunture.

This assemblage of tracks is capped by an ash flow from a nearby volcano which has been dated to 700,000 years ago. The ash flow was deposited shortly after the tracks were left, although we don’t know precisely how soon after. The tracks are not as anatomically distinct as those from Namibia but they are smaller and may have been made by children as young as one or two, standing in the mud while their parents and older siblings got on with their activities. This included knapping the stone tools with which they butchered the carcass of the hippo.

The findings create a unique and momentary insight into the world of a child long ago. They clearly were not left at home with a babysitter when the parents were hunting. In the harsh savannah plains of the East African Rift Valley, it was natural to bring your children to such daily tasks, perhaps so they could observe and learn.

This is not surprising, when one considers the wealth of ethnographic evidence from modern, culturally distinct human societies . Babies and children are most often seen as the lowliest members of their social and family groups. They 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 guns – are often freely available to children as a way of learning.

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