Manchester University Press, £20
Review Kim Biddulph
Robin Derricourt’s book is an overview of current and past research on the nature of the evidence for children in prehistory. As he points out, children are likely to have comprised about 50% of the population of most prehistoric societies, and so it is high time they were studied to the same degree as adults.
The book is arranged thematically with chapters on topics such as birth, breastfeeding and weaning, disease, clothing, learning and play, and the treatment of children at death. Within each of these chapters, Derricourt sets out evidence from primatology, archaeology, and anthropology, with the evidence broadly divided into earlier hunter-gatherer and later agriculturalist periods. He focuses on evidence from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, with examples from the Americas, Asia, and Oceania.
Derricourt does not set out to answer any questions about the nature of childhood in prehistory. As he rightly points out, that would be impossible given the dearth of research on the topic. Instead, attention is brought to the few studies that have been undertaken and the potential for new areas of research to start to resolve some of the questions we have. For instance, there is currently no way to work out how lives might have been different for female and male children, but with DNA profiling linked to a study of funerary traditions, osteoarchaeology, and stable-isotope analysis, Derricourt advocates a potential prehistory of boys and a prehistory of girls. The nature of learning and the mechanisms of how skills and cultural knowledge were passed from generation to generation are starting to be studied and surely, Derricourt argues, should be a central concern for archaeologists.
The author warns of the danger of ‘presentism’ when studying childhood in the social sciences, and points out that the current Western urban neontocracy, where the child is at the pinnacle of society and treated with immense care, is unusual and very different even from the recent past. By extension, according to Derricourt, studying the variation in the treatment, identity, and experience of children in prehistory can provide some perspective on contemporary childhood.