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

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.

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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. 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.

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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.

Artistic impression of scene at Melka Kunture. Matthew Bennett, Author provided

So, if we picture the scene at Melka Kunture, the children observing the butchery were probably allowed to handle stone tools and practice their skills on discarded pieces of carcass while staying out of the way of the fully-occupied adults. This was their school room, and the curriculum was the acquisition of survival skills. There was little time or space to simply be a child, in the sense that we would recognise today.

This was likely the case for a very long time. The Monte Hermoso Human Footprint Site in Argentina (roughly 7,000-years-old) contains predominantly small tracks (of children and women) preserved in coastal sediments and it has been suggested that the children may have played an important role in gathering seafood or coastal resources. Similarly, most of the tracks in the Tuc d'Audoubert Cave in France (15,000-years-old) are those of children and the art there is striking. Perhaps they were present when it was carved and painted?

However, these observations contrasts to the story that emerged last year based on tracks from the older Homo Homo erectus (1.5m-year-old) at Ileret, located further south in the Rift Valley, just within the northern border of Kenya. Here the tracks have been interpreted as the product of adult hunting groups moving along a lake shore, rather than a domestic scene such as that at Melka Kunture. However, these scenes aren’t mutually exclusive and both show the power of footprints to provide a snapshot into past hominin behaviour.

But it does seem like the overwhelming parenting lesson from the distant past is that children had more responsibilities, less adult supervision and certainly no indulgence from their parents. It is a picture of a childhood very different from our own, at least from the privileged perspective of life in Western society.


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

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.

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. Jose Luis Martinez Alvarez/wikipedia, CC BY-SA

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.

Artistic impression of scene at Melka Kunture. Matthew Bennett, Author provided

So, if we picture the scene at Melka Kunture, the children observing the butchery were probably allowed to handle stone tools and practice their skills on discarded pieces of carcass while staying out of the way of the fully-occupied adults. This was their school room, and the curriculum was the acquisition of survival skills. There was little time or space to simply be a child, in the sense that we would recognise today.

This was likely the case for a very long time. The Monte Hermoso Human Footprint Site in Argentina (roughly 7,000-years-old) contains predominantly small tracks (of children and women) preserved in coastal sediments and it has been suggested that the children may have played an important role in gathering seafood or coastal resources. Similarly, most of the tracks in the Tuc d’Audoubert Cave in France (15,000-years-old) are those of children and the art there is striking. Perhaps they were present when it was carved and painted?

However, these observations contrasts to the story that emerged last year based on tracks from the older Homo Homo erectus (1.5m-year-old) at Ileret, located further south in the Rift Valley, just within the northern border of Kenya. Here the tracks have been interpreted as the product of adult hunting groups moving along a lake shore, rather than a domestic scene such as that at Melka Kunture. However, these scenes aren’t mutually exclusive and both show the power of footprints to provide a snapshot into past hominin behaviour.

But it does seem like the overwhelming parenting lesson from the distant past is that children had more responsibilities, less adult supervision and certainly no indulgence from their parents. It is a picture of a childhood very different from our own, at least from the privileged perspective of life in Western society.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Analysis of tracks

Experts have shown how the footprint tracks, as well as the distinctive shapes they left, show a woman, or possibly an adolescent male, carrying a toddler in their arms, shifting the toddler from left to right, and occasionally placing them down.

“These footprints paint a story for us from as far back as 13,000 years ago. This is likely to have been an incredibly hostile landscape, and we see that in the way that these tracks were made in a hurry,” said Professor Matthew Bennett, of Bournemouth University.

“Footprints can tell us so much and by the distance, direction and morphology of the prints, we can be quite accurate in understanding how these tracks were made, and what was happening at the time,” he said.

Sally Reynolds, also at Bournemouth University, said, “This research is important in helping us understand our human ancestors, how they lived, their similarities, and differences. We can put ourselves in the shoes, or footprints, of this person, imagine what it was like to carry a child from arm to arm as we walk across tough terrain surrounded by potentially dangerous animals.”

Read More


Footprints Mark a Toddler’s Perilous Prehistoric Journey

Mammoths and giant ground sloths roamed the same terrain that a young adult swiftly moved through while toting a young child.

The human footprint sequence from the Pleistocene era extends more than a mile and includes at least 427 human prints. The out-and-back journey was probably completed in no more than a few hours, the researchers suggested. Credit. Reynolds et al., Quaternary Science Reviews 2020

Several thousand years ago, a young adult moved barefoot across a muddy landscape. A toddler was balanced on the adult’s hip. There were large animals — mammoths and ground sloths — just over the horizon. It was a perilous journey, and scientists reconstructed it by closely studying an exceptional set of human and animal footprints found recently in the southwestern United States.

“This is an amazing trackway,” said Neil Thomas Roach, an anthropologist at Harvard University, who was not involved in the research, which was published online this month in Quaternary Science Reviews. “We rarely get tracks as well preserved as these are.”

It is one of the most extensive Pleistocene-age trackways found to date, and studying it highlights how ancient sets of fossilized footprints can reveal more than even fossilized bones. It’s rare for bones to reveal behaviors, but tracks can shed a lot of light on animal interactions, said Sally C. Reynolds, a paleoecologist at Bournemouth University in England and an author of the study.

The journey of the prehistoric young adult and the toddler was spotted in 2017 in White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico. The sequence extends more than a mile and includes at least 427 human prints. The out-and-back journey was probably completed in no more than a few hours, the researchers suggest. (The gypsum sand that records the prints doesn’t hold water well, so the muddy conditions that captured the prints would have been short-lived.)

Most of the human footprints were made by a barefoot adolescent of either sex, or a young adult female with roughly size 6 feet, the team determined. But about every 100 yards or so, a few much smaller human prints suddenly appear within the northbound set of tracks.

“We have many adult tracks, and then every now and again we have these tiny baby tracks,” Dr. Reynolds said.

A toddler-aged child was being carried and periodically placed on the muddy ground as the caregiver readjusted his or her human load, the researchers surmised, based on the three-dimensional digital models they had assembled. There are no toddler footprints within the southbound set of tracks, so the child probably wasn’t carried on that journey.

It’s likely that the child rode on the young person’s left hip. There’s a slight asymmetry between the left and right tracks on the northbound set of tracks. That’s consistent with someone carrying extra weight on that side, Dr. Reynolds said.

She and her collaborators estimated that the young person was moving at just shy of four miles per hour. That’s a good clip: “Imagine running for a bus,” Dr. Reynolds said. “It’s not a stroll.”

The urgency of the journey might have had something to do with the toddler, Dr. Reynolds suggests. “Why else would you travel so fast but encumber yourself with a child?”

There was another reason, however, for making haste over the landscape — the presence of large and potentially dangerous animals. Both a giant sloth and a mammoth ambled across the humans’ path, the trackway reveals. Their prints appear on top of the northbound footsteps but below the southbound ones, meaning that the animals walked by sometime in between the humans’ passage.

The mammoth — most likely a bull, based on the size of its tracks — was apparently uninterested in the humans who had walked by just hours before its tracks do not indicate any reaction. The giant sloth, on the other hand, stopped and shuffled in a circle when it encountered the human trackway, its prints indicate. The sloth’s response suggests that humans had positioned themselves at the top of the food chain, Dr. Reynolds said.

In the future, Dr. Reynolds and her colleagues hope to better understand the people that inhabited this region. For instance, it’s an open question whether they had migrated seasonally or stayed put in one area throughout the year, Dr. Reynolds said. “We’re trying to assemble these little snapshots of what life was like in the past.”


Preserving Engare Sero for the future

Several of the human footprint tracks lead to a nearby sand dune to the north. We’ve purposefully left any footprints preserved under the sand dune unexcavated for now, until we can work with the Tanzanian government to develop a conservation plan to track and limit erosion of the footprints.

The hardened ash is remarkably resilient to erosion from water and wind. Still, thanks to the Smithsonian’s 3D Digitization Program, we have meticulously captured three-dimensional data for each of the footprints so we can trace any natural destruction of the prints over time. You can even download 3D files of a few of the Engare Sero footprints, in case you want to 3D print your own copies.


Parenting through the ages

In our study, we decided to investigate these objects using a technique called organic residue analysis. We found three in European child graves and two of them were complete. Normally we’d grind up broken pots, but we couldn’t possibly do this to these very small and precious vessels.

Instead, we did some very delicate drilling to produce enough ceramic powder and then treated it with a chemical technique that extracts molecules called lipids. These lipids come from the fats, oils and waxes of the natural world and are normally absorbed into the material of the prehistoric pots during cooking, or, in this case, through heating the milk.

Luckily, these lipids often survive for thousands of years. We regularly use this technique to find out what sort of food people cooked in their ancient pots. It seems they ate many of the things we eat today, including various types of meat, dairy products, fish, vegetables and honey.

A prehistoric family scene showing an infant being fed with a baby bottle similar to those we tested. Christian Bisig/Archäologie der Schweiz , Author provided

Our results showed that the three vessels contained ruminant animal milk, either from cows, sheep or goat. Their presence in child graves suggests they were used to feed babies animal milk, as a supplementary food during weaning.

This is interesting because animal milk would only have become available as humans changed their lifestyles and settled in farming communities. It’s at that time – the dawn of agriculture – that people first domesticated cows, sheep, goats and pigs. This ultimately led to the “Neolithic demographic transition”, when the widespread use of animal milk to feed babies or as a supplementary weaning food in some parts of the world improved nutrition, contributing to an increased birth rate. The human population grew significantly as a result, and so did settlement sizes, which eventually became the towns and cities we know today. By holding these ancient baby bottles, we’re connected to the first generations of children who grew up in the transition from hunter-gatherer groups to communities based around agriculture.

A modern-day baby testing a replica of one of the ancient bottles. Helena Seidl da Fonseca , Author provided

This research gives us a greater insight into the lives of mothers and babies in the past and how prehistoric families were dealing with infant feeding and nutrition at what would have been a very risky time in an infant’s life. Child mortality would have been high – there were no antibiotics in those days – and feeding babies with animal milk would have come with its own set of risks. Although it may have provided a valuable source of nutrition, today we know that unpasteurised milk carries the risk of contamination from bacteria and can transmit disease from the animal.

Like all good research, this begs a range of new questions. Both the ancient Greeks and the Romans used very similar vessels and we know of a small number in a prehistoric site in Sudan. It would be interesting to see how these generations of children were fed and raised elsewhere in the world. It’s perhaps comforting to know that despite the vast distance of time, these people loved and cared for their children in much the same way that we do today.


Essential Reads

In the paper, the scientists use pressure maps&mdashlike topological geographical maps, but for the depth of each footprint. Based on how the foot strikes and sinks into the muddy ground that turned to rock, the scientists can begin to draw conclusions. This is how they know, for example, that the young person was carrying a child on one side. One side&rsquos prints were heavier, and there was even a place where the child was briefly set down.

They also say the young person carried the child for &ldquoat least&rdquo one trip. This makes sense, too&mdashin several hours, the mud could have changed enough that the same combined weight of young adult and child didn&rsquot sink as much, for example. And the trip could have been to retrieve whatever prehistoric Baby Bjorn could help the young adult carry the child more easily, maybe on their way to spend time gathering food or some other hands-requiring activity.

The scientists can tell the two sets of human prints were separated by some time as part of the high variability in the entire set of footprint samples, they say. In fact, the extraordinary number of footprints has a meta-lesson for all biometric study of surviving fossilized footprints. &ldquoOne conclusion is that the number of footprints required to make reliable biometric inferences is greater than often assumed,&rdquo they explain.

That&rsquos a tough lesson, because finding a giant amount of these footprints is vanishingly rare. The implication is that very few of the world&rsquos footprinted sites are able to be reasonably analyzed for biometrics&mdashqualities like someone&rsquos height or body weight that could be extrapolated with enough information. These insights can be really valuable, but only if they&rsquore scientifically sound.

The takeaway makes sense, though. Think about walking around in your yard and picking up the leaves you find, then compare that to what someone would find in your entire neighborhood, let alone your entire city or region. A large-enough sample size is vital to understanding how &ldquogood&rdquo scientific models can be.


Human tracks

The trackway was first discovered in 2017, thanks to National Parks employee David Bustos, who invited a group of scientists — including Reynolds' husband, Matthew Bennett, a geoscientist at Bournemouth University — to view the site. Bustos had noticed possible signs of footprints on the flat, arid playa landscape while patrolling the park, then a national monument.

Excavations revealed fossilized footprints just below the loose white gypsum sand. These tracks were originally made on wet ground. As the water evaporated, it left behind the minerals dolomite and calcite, which created rocky molds of the footprints.

The tracks run north/northwest in a straight line in one direction before disappearing into the dunes. Next to them are the remains of the return south/southwest return journey, which appears to have been made by the same person, judging by the size of the footprints and the stride length.

Along the way, the adult tracks are sometimes accompanied by the footprints of a child under 3 years old. Northbound, the adult tracks are a little asymmetrical, evocative of a woman holding a child on one hip. At times, the child's footprints appear, perhaps during rest breaks when the adult put the squirmy toddler down. There are no child footprints on the return southbound journey, suggesting that perhaps the trip was taken in order to drop off the child somewhere.

"Motivation is something we can't really speak to in the fossil record, but it's something we want to know," Reynolds told Live Science. Reynolds speculated that perhaps the child was ill and needed to be taken to another camp where someone could help him or her. Whatever the reason for the journey, it seemed very goal-oriented: The footprints didn't deviate and the walker didn't dawdle. The stride length suggests that the person was walking about 5.5 feet (1.7 meters) per second, a brisk pace. The region was arid, but the journey was near an ancient, now-vanished lake, and the ground was muddy and slippery.

"We do know the journey was faster than normal speed and over terrain that would have been more tiring than normal," Reynolds said.


Fossil footprints tell story of prehistoric parent's journey

Hungry giant predators, treacherous mud and a tired, probably cranky toddler -- more than 10,000 years ago, that was the stuff of every parent's nightmare.

Evidence of that type of frightening trek was recently uncovered, and at nearly a mile it is the longest known trackway of early-human footprints ever found.

The discovery shows the archaeological findings of footprint tracks at White Sands National Park in New Mexico. The tracks run for 1.5 kilometers (.93 miles) and show a single set of footprints that are joined, at point, by the footprints of a toddler. The paper's authors have shown how the footprint tracks, as well as the distinctive shapes they left, show a woman (or possibly an adolescent male) carrying a toddler in their arms, shifting the toddler from left to right, and occasionally putting the child down.

"When I first saw the intermittent toddler footprints, a familiar scene came to mind," said Thomas Urban, research scientist at Cornell University. Urban has pioneered the application of geophysical imaging to detect footprints.

The tracks were found in a dried-up lakebed, which contains a range of other footprints dating from 11,550 to 13,000 years ago. The lakebed's formerly muddy surface preserved footprints for thousands of years as it dried up.

Previously found in the terrain are the prints of animals such as mammoths, giant sloths, saber-toothed cats and dire wolves. Sloths and mammoths were found to have intersected the human tracks after they were made, showing that this terrain hosted both humans and large animals at the same time, making the journey taken by this individual and child a dangerous one.

The recently discovered footprints were noted for the straightness, as well as being repeated a few hours later on a return journey -- only this time without a child in tow, which can be seen from the tracks.

"This research is important in helping us understand our human ancestors, how they lived, their similarities and differences," said co-author Sally Reynold, senior lecturer in hominin paleoecology at Bournemouth University. "We can put ourselves in the shoes, or footprints, of this person (and) imagine what it was like to carry a child from arm to arm as we walk across tough terrain surrounded by potentially dangerous animals."


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