Document Type


Journal/Book Title

Current Anthropology

Publication Date



Human life history is unique in the great length of the juvenile or immature period. The lengthened period is often attributed to the time required for youth to master the culture, particularly subsistence and survival skills. But an increasing number of studies show that children become skilled well before they gain complete independence and the status of adults. It seems, as they learn through play and participation in the domestic economy, children are acquiring a “reserve capacity” of skills and knowledge, which they may not fully employ for many years. The theory offered here to resolve this paradox poses that, individually and collectively, children’s reserve capacity for work can be rapidly activated to offset a shortfall in familial resources brought on by crises such as the loss of older family members. Additionally, social forces engendered by war, disease, famine, and economic change may lead to the wholesale recruitment of children into the labor force—with consequent attenuation of the developmental opportunities of an extended juvenility. In effect, humans display a primary life history strategy and an accelerated strategy with a shortened period of dependency. A wide array of cases from anthropology and history will be offered in support of this proposal.