All mothers are working mothers. Looking after babies and young infants is a hard job in its own right, but the notion of a stay at home mum was most likely alien to prehistoric people. Women’s working capacity outside their homes was indispensable. So what is one to do with the babies? Tim Taylor recently argued in his book The Artificial Ape (2010) that baby slings are one of the earliest inventions of mankind, as evolutional processes made babies extremely immature and helpless at the time they are born. They could not even hold on to their mothers (fur) and thus a carrying device was needed. Actual archaeological evidence or slings, however, is hard to find. Slings would have been made of hides or plant fibres, and these do not preserve well in the ground.
I also suspect that baby carrying at all times, as promoted by the attachment parenting movement, is a little overly romantic. Carrying babies is sometimes impractical or even dangerous, for example in extreme temperatures. It can further be hard on mothers who suffer from birth injuries. I was very keen on the idea of ‘baby wearing’ myself with my firstborn – he, however, wanted nothing to do with it. He struggled against being too tightly confined from day one. Swaddling? No way, Mama! Holding? If you insist. Cuddling? Ok, now we are talking.
Swaddling and storing babies in cradle boards is another attractive option for prehistoric mothers. Cradle boards can be used for carrying babies, but also for temporarily storing them away from danger or even hanging them up a tree! I was struck by the ubiquity and variety of cradle boards on display in the Chicago Field Museum – a fantastic collection with a history that warrants another blog post. Ancient Puebloan cradle boards, for instance, changed from models with foot rest to models without as hunter-gatherers became farmers. The footrest was only necessary when infants were carried, not when the cradle boards were merely set next to the mother whilst she did her chores. Cradle boards were not only used by indigenous cultures in North America, but also be the Sami of Northern Europe. Other European cultures seemed to have preferred swaddling with bands and blankets.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes describes two further ideas of what to do with children in Death Without Weeping, her 1992 ethnography of life in the slums of Brazil. First, toddlers were simply stuck in holes in the ground during the time their parents were occupied with harvesting sugar cane nearby. This seems a solution that may have been used in prehistoric Europe as well, to keep them safe and out of mischief for short periods of time. And it lends a whole new quality to the interpretation of settlement pits and postholes on archaeological sites!
Second, she describes how even very small babies were left alone during the day in hammocks, perhaps with a bottle of milk, while the mothers were away working outside the home. Unsurprisingly, not all babies survived this treatment. This practice seems less applicable as an analogy for prehistory, just because it is confined to the very fragmented society of mid-to late 20th century Brazil, in which people were displaced and settled far away from friends and family who would normally keep an eye on babies during the mother’s absence.
Separating the mother’s workplace from her baby’s space for more than a few hours seems impractical on many levels anyway (writing this with my secondborn on my lap). I would, however, caution against seeing the separation of mothers and babies as a notion of modernity only. Prehistory was not always a nice place. Let us explore motherhood in prehistory before we make any assumptions.