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Scientists find Africa’s oldest human burial, a child from 78,000 years ago

scientists-find-africa’s-oldest-human-burial,-a-child-from-78,000-years-ago

The trench excavation at the mouth of a Panga ya Saidi cave shows where archaeologists unearthed the ancient child’s grave. 

Mohammad Javad Shoaee

A cluster of 78,000-year-old bones found at the mouth of a Kenyan cave represent the earliest known human burial in Africa, shedding light on how our ancient ancestors interacted with the dead. 

The remains belong to a Middle Stone Age child believed to have been between 2.5 and 3 years old. The bones of the toddler, whom scientists nicknamed Mtoto (“child” in Swahili), come from the Panga ya Saidi cave complex in coastal southeast Kenya. The excavation site has yielded a rich trove of historical artifacts, including beads made from seashells and thousands of tools that reflect technological shifts from the Middle Stone Age to the Later Stone Age.  

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When archaeologists found Mototo’s highly decomposed remains, they couldn’t immediately identify them as human. In a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature, researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the National Museums of Kenya detail how they came to conclude, through microscopic analysis of the bones and the surrounding soil, that the skeleton in a cave’s shallow circular pit belonged to a child who’d intentionally been laid to rest. 

“Deliberate burial of the dead is so far confined to just Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, setting us apart from all other ancient hominins, and any other animal,” Nicole Boivin, an archaeological scientist and director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, tells me. “Study of mortuary and burial practices gives us insight into the evolution of our own species, our thoughts, emotions and cosmological beliefs, and what it means to be human.”  

Earlier hominins also treated the dead in special ways. For example, the archaic human species Homo naledi appears to have placed bodies in the back of South Africa’s Rising Star Cave about 300,000 years ago. That’s a practice referred to as funerary caching. 

Mtoto’s case, in contrast, demonstrates a more complex process through evidence of a purposefully excavated pit followed by intentional covering of the corpse. The child appears to have been prepared for a tightly shrouded burial, placed on one side with knees drawn toward the chest. Even more notable is that the position of the child’s head suggests it rested on some sort of support, like a pillow. That indicates the community may have performed a mourning rite. 

mtoto

A virtual reconstruction of Mtoto’s original position at the moment of its discovery at the excavation site in Kenya. 

Jorge González/Elena Santos

The archaeologists first came upon parts of the bones in 2013, and four years later, discovered the burial pit about 10 feet (3 meters) under the cave floor.   

“At this point, we weren’t sure what we had found,” says Emmanuel Ndiema of the National Museums of Kenya. “The bones were just too delicate to study in the field. So we had a find that we were pretty excited about, but it would be a while before we understood its importance.”

Once they made plaster casts

 of the remains they brought those to the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain, for further study. 

It was there the team started uncovering parts of the skull and face, which still had some unerupted teeth in place.

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