The unexpected reasons why human childhood is extraordinarily long


I WAS going to start this article another way. But that was before my 10-year-old daughter intervened. In fact, I had already begun writing when she bounced up and tried to scam me. She offered to bet me £10 that she could make an ordinary pencil write in the colour red. Alas for the budding entrepreneur, I refused the bet: she was too confident, so I suspected she had something up her sleeve. But I did let her reveal her trick. She took a lead pencil and wrote “in the colour red”. Then she laughed like a hyena and went off to try scamming her mother.

Our bright little spark has opinions about everything from video games and sports to books. She is learning basic algebra and coding, and her Taylor Swift expertise vastly outstrips mine. Yet, despite all this knowledge, she has years to go before adulthood. If she lives an average lifespan, a quarter of her years will be spent underage.

The long human childhood is a real oddity. No other primate spends so much time becoming an adult. Over the course of our species’ evolution, along with more obvious physical changes, childhoods got vastly longer. Traditionally, palaeoanthropologists have paid little attention to children, but now that is changing. A spate of intriguing discoveries in the past few years is building a picture about human childhood: when this seemingly unproductive life stage expanded, why it is so long and what prehistoric kids got up to. The findings don’t just throw light on a dark corner…

Leave a Comment