When we think about ancient humans, we often imagine them doing certain kinds of things. Usually very serious things like hunting game and making tools, foraging for food and building fires, maybe performing the occasional intricate ritual. But there was definitely more to the deep past than all this adulting. There were children around, too—lots of them—no doubt running around and wreaking havoc, much as they do today. But what were the kids up to, exactly? What games were they playing? What toys did they have? What were their lives like?
My guest today is Dr. Michelle Langley, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. Michelle grapples with questions about children, play, and childhood in the deep past. In recent work, she draws on ethnographic reports to assemble a picture of what children have in common all across the globe. She then uses that understanding to cast new light on the archaeological record, to make fresh inferences about what kids must have been doing, making, and leaving behind.
In this conversation, Michelle and I talk about the kinds of basic activities that have long been a mainstay of childhood everywhere—activities like playing with dolls, keeping pets, collecting shells, and building forts. We discuss how archaeologists often assume that hard-to-interpret objects have ritual purpose, when, in fact, those objects could just as easily be toys. We talk about how children seek out and engineer “secret spaces”. We also touch on how a male-centric bias has distorted archaeological discussions; how the baby sling may have been the primordial container; and how otters stash their favorite tools in their armpits.
This is a super fun one, folks. But first a tiny bit of housekeeping: in case you missed the news, we have new newsletter. Seriously, who wouldn’t want a monthly dose of Many Minds right in their inbox? You can find a sign-up link in the show notes.
Alright friends, on to my conversation with Dr. Michelle Langley. Enjoy!