Growing up human: the evolution of childhood

Review by Joe Flatman.

Growing Up Human examines the history of childhood in the broadest sense, from reproductive options through conception and eventual transference into adulthood, by way of gestation, birth, early years, childhood, and adolescence. The book was, clearly, written with the intention of appealing to a mass market, being both ‘serious’ enough (in terms of footnotes and references) to be a textbook and ‘entertaining’ enough (in terms of a lot of jokes and a pacey style) to be accessible to wider audiences. Some readers will love this style, others will hate it – honestly, as a reviewer, I struggled at times with yet another punning footnote, but I persevered, as I would encourage others to. This is, at heart, a very good book that brings together an incredible array of evidence from around the world without losing its narrative thread, and it pulls upon a diverse array of data from deep prehistory to the recent past. That is no mean feat given the subject matter.

Growing Up Human asks questions of us as archaeologists that we all ought to reflect upon as we go about our lives, undertake our research, and engage with our communities. As Hassett puts it: ‘We, alone among the animals, have decided that not only do we want to live forever, we want to be forever young. We take an extraordinary amount of time to grow up… When other apes are getting down to reproducing, we are still off in Neverland, playing and learning and doing what kids do. Why should this be?’

In the process of trying to answer this evolutionary conundrum, the book also provides a great service to the archaeological community in linking our world to that of the wider social sciences. It is thus a superlative sales-pitch for how archaeology is shot-through with all aspects of society – a demonstration of our relevance, which the archaeological community is so often very poor at pointing out. As such, it ought to be read widely and shared generously: buy this to give to your friends and families, as well as to read for yourself.

Growing Up Human: the evolution of childhood
Brenna Hassett
Bloomsbury Sigma, £17.99
ISBN 978-1472975751