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Children of the Ice Age

Reconstruction of three Palaeolithic girls playing with a doll. Painted by Tom Björklund

Reconstruction of three Palaeolithic girls playing with a doll. Painted by Tom Björklund

By Michelle Langley

What did kids play with 20,000 years ago? New research suggests that figurines long thought to have been ritual icons may actually be children’s toys.

Trying to find evidence for what children were doing during the Palaeolithic period of Europe 45,000 to 11,000 years ago is a relatively new aspect of archaeological research. So far, researchers have been able to find traces of children learning how to make stone tools and perhaps training to become artists, but those items that we most strongly associate with childhood – toys – are yet to be located.

That is, until now. New research exploring a culture that thrived throughout Western Europe between 21,000 and 14,000 years ago – known to archaeologists as the Magdalenian – has begun shedding light on what children’s toys may have looked like during this early period.

The Magdalenian is known for its magnificent and skilful artistic tradition, which not only included the rock art of Lascaux (and elsewhere) but also carved figurines and richly decorated tools made from reindeer antler, mammoth ivory and bone. Most importantly, their archaeological sites are often well-preserved, allowing researchers to gain insights into aspects of prehistoric life that are not always available. Consequently, this culture is a great place to start looking for traces of children in the deep past.

Finding Toys from the Deep Past

How does one go about finding out what kids 20,000 years ago played with? One way is to look at something more recent that shares similarities with the prehistoric case study we are wanting to learn about. In this case, we look at what modern kids growing up in communities whose economy is based on hunting-and-gathering (like the Magdalenians) spend their time doing. This approach works because child psychologists and anthropologists alike have discovered that playing with toys is a truly universal aspect of culture: everyone does it, everywhere. Therefore, how today’s hunter-gatherer kids play is likely to be very similar to what kids in similar situations did thousands of years ago.

Anthropologists working in fishing, hunting and gathering communities across the globe report little boys practising with tiny hunting equipment either made by themselves or their relatives, while girls practise the skills they will need to become fully functioning members of their community – such as basket-making and collecting food – using tiny versions of the tools used in these activities. Both boys and girls are observed making figures of animals, people and everyday items from mud, as well as playing with dolls or animal figurines made and given to them by their families. Similarly, researchers have frequently noted that kids are often amused by small animals, such as puppies, birds, lizards and monkeys.

Does some of this sound familiar? Even in modern Western societies kids enjoy mimicking their parents in their everyday activities, such as driving the car, cleaning the house or mowing the lawn. Who hasn’t made figures out of mud or plasticine? And who hasn’t enjoyed playing with a four-footed family member? No matter where or when a child grows up, there appears to be many common activities indulged in at one time or another.

Palaeolithic Playthings

According to this theory, archaeologists should have found miniature weapons and tools – tiny copies of the everyday tools their parents were using, clay figurines and dolls – in Magdalenian sites. And guess what? They have – except such finds have always been labelled as pieces of “portable art”.

You see, Magdalenian archaeological sites have produced quite a number of beautifully crafted animal and human figures made in reindeer antler, bone, mammoth ivory and stone. The quality of the craftsmanship and the time needed to create these small items have led researchers to presume that they were made for special tasks – specifically, the religious or spiritual life of the community.

This supposition is supported by the fact that most of the figurines depict animals important to Ice Age life – important food animals or creatures likely respected for their strength and power – such as horses, reindeer, cave lions, cave bears and mammoths. However, these are the same animals likely to be selected for children’s toys.

Moving back to the present, it was found that the figurines made for and by children were usually of the animals that they knew best – animals commonly hunted or encountered in their landscape. So, it makes sense that Magdalenian children would want to play with toy reindeer and horses (their main prey and an source of important furs and antler for making tools), as well as cave lions (likely a respected and perhaps feared hunter).

So why can’t some of these figurines have been made for children as toys? The answer is they very well could have, but before the 1980s archaeologists were not even looking to find evidence for children’s activities or their possessions in the prehistoric archaeological record. When such items were discovered, the idea that they could have once belonged to a child was not even considered. Indeed, it was commonly felt that information regarding past children’s lives was inaccessible to researchers, and consequently children were effectively erased from prehistory.

Tiny Tools?

The Magdalenians were hunters of reindeer and horses. Their sites are full of the these bones, which is not surprising when one creature provided not only meat to feed the family but also furs with which to create warm clothing and tents, sinews for sewing and hafting, and bone to manufacture tools necessary to survive the Ice Age. This culture is also famous for the vast array of spearpoints and other technologies made from reindeer antler.

Experiments with antler spearpoints has found that they are extremely efficient at taking down prey and significantly more durable than those made from stone. They were central to the toolkit of the hunter and, given this importance and what we know from recent hunter-gatherers, it would follow that children would spend a good part of their time learning how to use such weapons.

However, no tiny versions of antler points were found among the thousands of broken spear points recovered from Magdalenian sites across France and southern Germany I looked at as part of my doctoral research. I did find several points that had been badly repaired and catastrophically broken, and these may represent children playing with discarded adult-sized weapon tips.

I also found a small antler tool featuring a single hole at one end, a line incised down its length and roughly worked extremities. With the exception of its small size, this artefact from the French site of Isturitz bears remarkable similarity to what are commonly known as bâtons percés, a tool type thought to have been used either as a spear straightener or in making leather thongs. Straightening wooden poles to make spears and lengths of leather thongs for tying together various technological elements would have been projects frequently undertaken in a Palaeolithic camp.

Consequently, we might expect the small children in such a camp to want to imitate these activities which preoccupied their parents. Thus, this small artefact might be one of the first items identified as a possible children’s toy – in this case, a toy spear-straightener or thong-smoother.

Finding the Children of the Ice Age

Now that the groundwork for identifying possible children’s toys from such remote periods has been laid down, archaeologists will be able to go back over their assemblages to look for similar items. Once found, we will then be able to paint Ice Age children back into our understanding of life some 20,000 years ago. Obviously, much research remains to be undertaken, but at least now archaeologists have begun searching.

Dr Michelle Langley is an Australian Research Council DECRA Research Fellow in the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution at Griffith University.