Scientists just uncovered ancient signs of child labor

cave painting
© rdonar/Shutterstock

When you think of child labor, you might imagine dirty 19th-century orphans scrambling through coal mines. But we've got news to make your day just a liiiiitle bit darker. Apparently, child labor has been going on for millennia.

“In the next years, we will find more and more evidence that children were participating early in their lives in economic society," explained Mélie Le Roy, an archaeologist at France's Mediterranean Laboratory of Prehistory.

The evidence has been piling up. Archaeologists uncovered a child-sized leather cap and mini mining picks in some of Austria's 3,000-year-old ancient salt mines. When other scientists examined prehistoric French tombs, they found baby teeth with grooves in them, probably from stretching tendons or plant materials to make baskets. Other researchers dug up ancient pottery full of tiny, childlike fingernail marks in Canada. Archeologists even estimated that kids made 10 percent of the building materials for a 13th-century Lithuanian castle.

“It shows children in those societies had a certain level of social value,” said Steven Dorland, a University of Toronto archaeologist who worked on the dig. (We're sure the kids being forced into labor enjoyed being so socially valuable.)

Since child labor was apparently so common, you may be wondering why we're just learning this now. Did an archaeologist make some amazing discovery that kicked off this paradigm shift?

Nope! Apparently, past archaeologists just didn't used to think much about children. Then, in the 90s, scientists started to look at ancient women, which they weren't already doing because OF COURSE they weren't. That gave some scientists the crazy idea that they could think about other people who weren't adult men. And boom ... they started wondering what ancient kids got up to.

This all seems to illustrate something that's both part of our past and present. People in power tend to minimize the value of others in society. Kings think they're more important than peasants. "Job creators" put themselves above the people who do the actual work. Prehistoric adults evidently made kids do hard labor. And pre-90s archaeologists, who we are going to assume were mostly adult men, assumed only adult men were worth studying.

But if these child laborers show us anything, it's that societies aren't really built by the powerful. The forgotten majority dig the salt mines, make the baskets and build the castles.

Scientists just uncovered ancient signs of child labor
Kids have been digging in salt mines for thousands of years.

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