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Anthropology and the Child 3. Premature birth and prolonged infancy characterize childhood of genus Homo

3. Premature birth and prolonged infancy characterize childhood of genus Homo

KOBAYASHI: Do any anthropologists research children?

BABA: Not many, I'm afraid. The study of anthropology relies on fossils, but infant fossils are rare to find. Nevertheless, there is an interesting finding from research on infant fossils of Neanderthals. The Neanderthal had a different pattern of growth from that of modern humans. Namely, the bones of legs and hands of a 2 year-old Neanderthal infant are as thick as those of a Homo sapiens infant of 4 years. As their bones are not so different from each other in length, we assume that the Neanderthal infant was much more robust than the Homo sapiens infant. Perhaps by growing fat at an earlier age, Neanderthal infants could subsist in the coldest climate of the glacial epoch. Judging from its unworn teeth, we know also that the Neanderthal infant was not weaned yet at the age of 2 and half years.

KOBAYASHI: How was the development pattern of modern humans formed?

BABA: The human brain increasingly grew larger in the course of evolution. This played a decisive role, I think, in determining the pattern of human development. Usually, the brain of an animal grows rapidly during the prenatal period, but this growth slows down after birth. With a human child, rapid growth of the brain continues after birth till the age of one year or so. That would mean that a human baby is born prematurely by one year or so, when compared with other animals. True, the pelvis of a human female has broadened to facilitate the birth of a large-headed baby, but there is a limit beyond which it is difficult for the baby to pass through the birth canal. That is why, I guess, humans have chosen to give birth to a child prematurely before its brain gets too big.

One more thing: one of the characteristics of the human child is a very long duration of childhood. Though the brain of a six-year-old child is already comparable to that of an adult, the size of its body remains two-thirds the adult's size. The physical growth is contained until the child enters adolescence, due to the adaptation strategy of Homo sapiens, I guess.

Childhood falls in the period during which learning progresses quite smoothly. It is therefore more efficient to keep the child at a life stage geared for learning. For as long as its physical development is suppressed, its consumption of food is kept minimal, and education is facilitated. Though this adaptation strategy of humans, in comparison with other animals, sounds very tedious, but it must have been quite appropriate for Homo sapiens. Given that this is the development pattern of Homo sapiens, it fits perfectly with our reasoning that school kids should study in compulsory education. (laughter)

KOBAYASHI: So the time has come for us to think about how to rear children in the light of the latest knowledge in anthropology.

BABA: It may be quite useful to go back to child rearing by early humans. It would certainly be exciting to involve experts in development psychology and pedagogy in our discussion. For example, a chimp's infant at an early age clings tightly to the mother and is inseparable from her. Thus the child rearing of primate species tells us that it is totally appropriate for the mother to sleep with the child, though in the United States, it is said that a child should be accustomed to sleeping alone from an early stage of life to foster its sense of independence. Don't forget that Homo sapiens belong to the ape family. If such a comprehensive perspective were adopted, it would certainly improve the child rearing environment.

KOBAYASHI: I definitely agree with you! So we will count on your contribution from the anthropologist's point of view to further discussions on child rearing. Well, thank you so much for the stimulating dialog today.


Hisao BABA, D. M S c.
Born in Tokyo in 1945.
Curator and Chair, Department of Anthropology, National Science Museum Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, The University of Tokyo
Graduated from the Department of Biological Sciences, The University of Tokyo
Formerly, Associate Professor, Dokkyo University School of Medicine
Specializes inmorphological anthropology and has conducted paleoanthropological research and excavations of Java man for 20 years

Born in Tokyo in 1927.
Director, Child Research Net (CRN)
Director, Children's Rainbow Center (Japan Information and Training Center for Problems related to Child Abuse and Adolescent's Turmoil)
Professor Emeritus, The University of Tokyo
President Emeritus, National Children's Hospital
Doctor of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, The University of Tokyo
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