Open Anthro Vol 3-2 Approaching Youth in Anthropology
Keywords:Open Anthropology, youth, anthropology, anthropology age
Sallie Han & Jason Antrosio
This introduction was supposed to have begun with a clever epitaph about “youth,” but we could not find one. All of the bons mots we found on the web are actually about being older and claiming that it is only after youth that one can recognize what it really is—wasted on the young (George Bernard Shaw), a form of chemical madness (F. Scott Fitzgerald), and so on.
The singer and songwriter Patti Smith asks: “Who can know the heart of youth but youth itself?” Is it too much to suggest that anthropologists might? The pleasures and problems of youth have preoccupied poets, philosophers, and people of all ages, and also inspired a vibrant area of study in anthropology that is relevant and meaningful for us to learn from and teach. Indeed, if the concerns of youth belong to us all, then now seems an especially urgent time to concern ourselves with youth, who have been highly visible in recent movements for political and economic change, migrations within and across borders, and moments of crisis and resolution.
Elisa Sobo, in her 2015 Reviews in Anthropology piece, “Anthropological Contributions and Challenges to the Study of Children and Childhoods,” describes studies of children and youth as currently experiencing a major growth spurt across the four fields of anthropology. She traces a long history of disciplinary interest and the defining and redefining of the terms in which we understand children and youth and what and who they are. In the past, an interest in children and youths had been rooted in an understanding of childhood and youth as the ages and stages of human development that culminated in the psychological and social maturity of adulthood. In fact, Sobo reminds us that Edward Tylor, in the late 19th century, equated this apparent progression from childhood to adulthood with then prevailing ideas about humankind’s progress from savagery to civilization and contended that “the savage [is] a representative of the childhood of the human race” (45). Later, for Franz Boas and his students of the mid 20th century, childhood represented plasticity, both physical and psychological, and youth especially came to be understood as a period of change, vulnerability, and upheaval.
From the perspective of biological anthropology, childhood and adolescence distinguish humans from other primates and highly social mammals, Barry Bogin explains in his 1997 article, Evolutionary Hypotheses for Human Childhood. Bogin’s piece was published in the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, an annual supplement to the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, published by the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. “The majority of mammals progress from infancy to adulthood seamlessly, without any intervening stages, and while their growth rates are in decline” (72). Not so with humans, whose rate of growth, feeding, and reproductive behavior can be described as changing across five stages: infancy, childhood, juvenility, adolescence, and adulthood. Other mammals approach puberty almost full grown, but for humans, “the onset of adolescence is marked by a sudden and rapid increase in growth rate which peaks at a level unequaled since early infancy” (73).
Looking for children and youth in the archaeological record has prompted archaeologists to consider not only what they might find, but also how to interpret it, broadening both the sources and analysis of data. Megan A. Perry, in her 2005 Redefining Childhood through Biorarchaeology: Toward an Archaeological and Biological Understanding of Children in Antiquity, observes that bioarchaeologists can identify the skeletons of “subadults” or individuals under age 18 in a sample, but ought not consider them all “children.” Rather, she suggests that researchers “should consider how accurately their age categories reflect reality within a particular cultural or temporal context. Critically engaging these biological data with material cultural, textual, and ethnohistorical evidence allows archaeologists to better understand the role of children in ancient societies” (90). Perry’s piece is featured in the Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association special issue, Children in Action: Perspective on the Archaeology of Childhoods.
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