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GROWING UP IN ANCIENT AMERICA

Archaeologically, childhood has often been an understudied aspect of life, but this is rapidly changing (particularly within bioarchaeology; for numerous studies, see Bluebond-Langner and Korbin 2007; Halcrow and Tayles 2008; Kamp 2001; Thompson et al. 2014). Lewis (2007) dedicates an entire book to the topic. Titled The Bioarchaeology of Children it examines ancient health focusing on the kinds of things that make infants and children vulnerable to disease and death from a wide variety of mostly Old World settings. She combines modern clinical and biological information on this segment of the life-history trajectory and summarizes what we can hope to learn from ancient children’s skeletons.

Lewis focuses on weaning and dietary stress as primary areas that make early childhood so dangerous. Halcrow and Tayles (2008) provide a detailed overview of how to read the skeletons of children for important indicators of stress and pathology and how to consider the complex biocultural context within which children grow up. Weaning as a culturally determined activity is one of those complex variables that must be understood for ancient cultures. Children have a full set of deciduous dentition by the age of 2 to 3 (Ubelaker 1989: 65), and it is at this age that many groups begin to initiate supplemental feeding. It is the most advantageous time to permanently switch from breast milk to the staple foods of the group (Figure 4.1). The first permanent teeth begin to show up at around age 6, and this corresponds to full development of the immune system (Lewis 2007: 101). Thus, focusing on what it was like for children in the early childhood years between the ages of 2 through 6 make sense because this was an important and distinctive time while growing up. As the data on mortality patterns discussed earlier suggest, children who survive this period have a good chance of making it to adulthood, as late childhood and adolescence are far less risky.

Hopi children. Weaning from mother’s breast milk to food is a critical time in children’s growth and development. Credit

FIGURE 4.1 Hopi children. Weaning from mother’s breast milk to food is a critical time in children’s growth and development. Credit: Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library; Edward S. Curtis’s The North American Indian, 2003. Digital ID, ct12077, http://digital.library.northwestern.edu/ curtis/ The North American Indian (1907-1930) v.12, The Hopi ([Seattle]: E.S. Curtis; [Cambridge, Mass.: The University Press], 1922), facing page 36.

Collecting robust data on what it was like to grow up in ancient America is challenging on many levels. Children are difficult to study in the archaeological record for several reasons. First, children may not be buried in the same place as adults, and this may make their burials more difficult to locate. This may mean that they are not recovered systematically during the normal course of excavation. Second, children’s bones are thinner and more fragile and the younger they are, the more fragile the skeletal material is likely to be (Scheuer and Black 2000: 14). In this case, normal taphonomic processes over time may render the bones fragmentary or completely missing. This can lead to the underutilization and underrepresentation of nonadult bones in analyses because they are incomplete or bone surfaces are poorly preserved. Third, excavation of burials is time-consuming and laborious. Often screening of the burials is not done to save time, but very small bones may simply not be recovered. At the Libben site, Lovejoy and colleagues (1977) used a very fine mesh screen to ensure that premature and full-term infants and children were recovered. Finally, if a population is undergoing social changes such as the introduction or intensification of agriculture, the population may be demographi- cally unstable. This instability may complicate assessments of overall mortality rates for the population (Perry 2005).

 
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