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Many Minds

May 25, 2022

When we think about ancient humans, we often imagine them doing certain kinds of things. Usually very serious things like hunting game and making tools, foraging for food and building fires, maybe performing the occasional intricate ritual. But there was definitely more to the deep past than all this adulting. There were children around, too—lots of them—no doubt running around and wreaking havoc, much as they do today. But what were the kids up to, exactly? What games were they playing? What toys did they have? What were their lives like?

My guest today is Dr. Michelle Langley, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. Michelle grapples with questions about children, play, and childhood in the deep past. In recent work, she draws on ethnographic reports to assemble a picture of what children have in common all across the globe. She then uses that understanding to cast new light on the archaeological record, to make fresh inferences about what kids must have been doing, making, and leaving behind.

In this conversation, Michelle and I talk about the kinds of basic activities that have long been a mainstay of childhood everywhere—activities like playing with dolls, keeping pets, collecting shells, and building forts. We discuss how archaeologists often assume that hard-to-interpret objects have ritual purpose, when, in fact, those objects could just as easily be toys. We talk about how children seek out and engineer “secret spaces”. We also touch on how a male-centric bias has distorted archaeological discussions; how the baby sling may have been the primordial container; and how otters stash their favorite tools in their armpits.

This is a super fun one, folks. But first a tiny bit of housekeeping: in case you missed the news, we have new newsletter. Seriously, who wouldn’t want a monthly dose of Many Minds right in their inbox? You can find a sign-up link in the show notes.

Alright friends, on to my conversation with Dr. Michelle Langley. Enjoy!


A transcript of this episode is available here.


Notes and links

2:30 – A 15,000 year old horse figurine from Les Espélugues cave in France.

6:00 – A classic paper by Conkey & Spector that helped initiate a wave of feminist archaeology.

7:30 – Dr. Langley’s first paper to examine children’s leavings in the archaeological record.

8:30 – See here for discussion and examples of perforated batons or bâton percés.

9:30 – Dr. Langley’s paper, co-authored with Mirani Litster, ‘Is it ritual? Or is it children?

14:00 – An influential discussion of ethnographic analogies in archaeology.

18:30 – A paper on the interpretation of Dorset miniature harpoon heads.

23:30 – An article on the Neanderthal ornamental use of raptor feathers.

29:00 - Dr. Langley’s paper on identifying children’s secret spaces in the archaeological record.

30:30 – A book by David Sobel on children’s special spaces.

34:00 – A website about the site of Étiolles.

40:00 – A figure showing the layout of the Bruniquel Cave, including the secondary structures.

41:00 ­– More information about the mammoth bone huts of Ukraine.

44:00 – A paper by Dr. Langley and Thomas Suddendorf on bags and other “mobile containers” in human evolution.

47:00 – A video showing a sea otter using their underarm “pocket” to store objects.

50:00 – The “carrier bag theory of evolution” was proposed by Elizabeth Fisher in Women’s Creation. This later inspired Ursula Le Guin to propose the “carrier bag theory of fiction.”

51:30 – An experimental study by Dr. Langley and colleagues on children’s emerging intuitions about the use of containers and bags.

55:30 – A paper by Dr. Langley and colleagues on early symbolic behavior in Indonesia.

Dr. Langley recommends:

Growing up in the Ice Age, by April Nowell

You can read more about Dr. Langley’s work at her website and follow her on Twitter.


Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from assistant producer Cecilia Padilla. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd ( Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (

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