The Ancient Practice of Child Labor Is Coming to Light

This story appears in the June 2020 difficulty as “More Than Kid’s Perform.” Subscribe to Learn magazine for additional tales like this.


The tattered leather-based slipper would have match a child beneath the age of ten. Perfectly preserved for footwear nearly 3,000 many years previous, it was uncovered a long time ago in the Hallstatt salt mine. With each other with other tiny shoes and woolen and leather-based caps, also located deep beneath the Austrian Alps in the mine’s tunnels, the slipper would provide archaeologists with a essential clue to existence in Hallstatt all through the Bronze and Iron ages, two,600 to 3,000 many years ago.

“We will have to conclude … small children were being routinely and in substantial numbers employed for underground mining,” wrote Fritz Eckart Barth, the archaeological site’s director in 1992, when the slipper was analyzed.

Hallstatt, Austria

Hallstatt, Austria. (Creidt: Rastislav Sedlak SK/Shutterstock)

In the many years given that the shoes and caps spurred investigations at Hallstatt, researchers have assembled a vivid image of the child laborers’ lives dependent on artifacts and bones. Use and tear on their skeletons, in individual, indicates the youngest miners carried out particular responsibilities at the internet site.

The study stands out as a unusual situation of reconstructing the lives of historical small children. While researchers have located fossils of juveniles spanning prehistory, they’ve mainly studied physical attributes, like height and brain measurement. Handful of reports have re-developed day to day activities — how young ones performed, realized and labored.

As a matter of scientific inquiry, “the archaeology of childhood is really the latest,” states Queen’s University Belfast researcher Mélie Le Roy. Archaeologists at Hallstatt and somewhere else are just starting to uncover children’s contributions to historical societies.

Salt Mine in Austria

The salt mine in Halstatt wherever the artifacts were being located. (Credit score: D. Brandner/NHM Vienna)

Salt Mine Modern society

Home to about 800 people today, the fashionable village of Hallstatt perches amongst a shimmering lake and pine-protected slopes (and is rumored by some to be the inspiration for the town in Disney’s Frozen). As Hans Reschreiter, an archaeologist at Purely natural Historical past Museum Vienna, puts it: “If you are in Hallstatt, you only see a great landscape.” Handful of website visitors realize that some 30 tales underground are the historical salt mines, a “very, quite, quite distinctive prehistoric internet site.”

Mining there commenced at minimum seven,000 many years ago and proceeds modestly now. That would make the UNESCO Entire world Heritage internet site “the oldest industrial landscape in the world [that’s] even now generating,” states Reschreiter, who has led excavations at Hallstatt for nearly two a long time.

Child's Shoe

A child’s shoe located in the salt mine in Hallstatt. (Credit score: A. Rausch/NHM Vienna)

But the mine’s peak was all through the Bronze and Iron ages, when salt’s sky-higher worth built Hallstatt a person of Europe’s wealthiest communities. Archaeologists have an understanding of a fantastic offer about functions then, many thanks to an extraordinary hoard of artifacts which includes leather-based sacks, food scraps, human feces and hundreds of thousands of employed torches.

Many of the finds are built of perishable products that are typically quick to decay. They survived in the mine’s tunnels because salt is a preservative — the quite cause it was in such higher demand from customers all through Hallstatt’s heyday.

Amongst the artifacts, the tiny shoes and caps showed small children were being in the mine. But researchers necessary additional proof to ascertain whether or not the young ones were being basically tagging alongside with working moms and dads or basically mining.

To have an understanding of the children’s roles, Austrian Academy of Sciences anthropologist Doris Pany-Kucera turned to their graves. In a study of ninety nine adults from Hallstatt’s cemetery, she located skeletal markers of muscle strain and injuries, suggesting quite a few villagers carried out challenging labor — some from an early age.

Artist Rendering of Hallstatt Salt Mine

This artist’s rendering demonstrates a snapshot of what existence might have been like in the Hallstatt salt mine all through the Bronze Age. (Credit score: D. Gröbner & H. Reschreiter/NHM Vienna)

Then, in 2019, she reported her examination of the stays of fifteen small children and teens, getting signals of repetitive perform. Youngsters as young as six suffered arthritis of the elbow, knee and spine. A number of experienced fractured skulls or were being lacking bits of bone, snapped from a joint beneath serious strain. Vertebrae were being worn or compressed on all men and women.

Combining clues from the Hallstatt bones and artifacts, researchers traced the children’s probable contributions to the salt business. They feel the youngest small children — 3- to four-year-olds — might have held the torches needed for gentle. By age 8, young ones probable assumed hauling and crawling responsibilities, carrying provides atop their heads or shimmying as a result of crevices too slender for developed-ups. Surviving shoes offered further particulars about their labor: Use patterns alongside the midsole advise repeated ladder and stair climbing.

“The people today experienced to perform a great deal, but they also profited,” states Pany-Kucera. Villagers young and previous were being buried with great merchandise, which includes amber beads, bronze rings and imports from the Mediterranean and Baltic regions. Primarily based on examination of stays from the cemetery, the existence expectancy of Hallstatt’s citizens was regular for that period of time.

Young children at Perform

It is no surprise that the young labored at Hallstatt. Youngsters are, and normally have been, vital contributors to group and loved ones perform. A childhood of perform and formal instruction is a rather fashionable concept that even now exists mainly in wealthy societies.

But archaeological proof for child labor has been tough to obtain. “Most of the small children are lacking from the archaeological history,” states Le Roy. There are many reasons for this gap: Amongst them, children’s lesser bones deteriorate additional very easily than adult skeletons, and sometimes so do their pint-sized belongings.

It is also thanks to the strategies researchers interpret artifacts, in accordance to Grinnell Higher education archaeologist Kathryn Kamp: “We make assumptions about who has done sure points. And the common assumption is adult.” In other words, artifacts related to looking or craftwork are typically attributed to developed-ups. To get young ones regarded as, states Kamp, “we explicitly have to say, ‘Oh look, this pot has very small fingerprints on it.’ ” This is exactly the method she took in a 1999 study that discovered children’s fingerprints on ceramics from North American sites about 800 many years previous. Her getting was a breakthrough in the then-nascent subject of researching historical childhoods.

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A child’s hat located in the mines. (Credit score: D. Gröbner & H. Reschreiter/NHM Vienna)

For a lot before Paleolithic societies, stone equipment comprise the bulk of surviving artifacts — and they really don’t maintain fingerprints. Continue to, researchers have instructed some equipment were being the perform of young ones, dependent on signals of rookie blunders. For illustration, a 2015 Quaternary Intercontinental paper discovered learn- and novice-level parts between artifacts built amongst 200,000 and 420,000 many years ago in Israel’s Qesem Cave. It is unclear, nevertheless, whether or not small children or inadequately competent adults might have built the decrease-good quality merchandise.

A number of researchers have discovered clearer circumstances of small children at perform. For illustration, in 2018 in the journal Ardèche Archéologie, Le Roy authored an examination of skeletal stays buried in megalithic tombs in southern France, courting to about four,five hundred many years ago. Amongst the scattered bones in the collective burials, some teeth experienced unique grooves, probable from sewing or basket generating: These marks kind when people today bite onto fibers currently being labored, utilizing their teeth like a third hand. Le Roy located the grooves on adults as nicely as small children as young as four. “They were being undertaking the same routines … generating some merchandise and collaborating in the financial existence of the group,” she states.

The This means of Their Labor

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Scientists located proof for physical labor in the children’s bones unearthed in the historical cemetery around the mine. (Credit score: D. Gröbner & H. Reschreiter/NHM Vienna)

While quite a few small children are lacking from the archaeological history, states anthropologist Nikita Werner, these reports present that “you can unquestionably obtain these young ones. They are there, and they’re undertaking points, and they’re undertaking quite vital points.”

The rising entire body of proof of children’s presence in challenging environments like the salt mine forces students to confront a additional philosophical dilemma: What was child labor in historical periods — participation or exploitation?

Werner, who focused on the difficulty in her 2019 master’s thesis on Hallstatt, sees salt mining as central to the historical community’s prosperity and identity. Mothers and fathers would have been acutely conscious of the risks inherent in the perform. But they necessary the youthful era down there, encouraging and studying. “They would not have uncovered their small children to undue risk with no understanding that that was going to be portion of the continuation of their society and way of existence,” states Werner.

Other students researching childhood in the previous concur. Uncovering their activities reveals how traditions were being passed on as a result of the ages. States Le Roy: “Children are the foundation of the cultural group … the next era.”

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