A Child’s 78,000-Year-Old Ancient Grave Marks Africa’s Oldest Known Human Burial

A three-year-old kid who died some 78,000 years ago is buried in Africa’s oldest known burial. The discovery delves into how people in the region treated their deceased at the time.

In 2017, archaeologists found the top of a bundle of bones in Kenya’s Panga ya Saidi cave.

Because the remains were so delicate, a block of silt around the bones was retrieved intact and transported to Spain’s National Research Centre on Human Evolution (CENIEH), where a thorough forensic analysis was conducted.

“We didn’t know what was going on in there until a year later,” explains Mara Martinón-Torres of CENIEH. “Unexpectedly, that sediment block was containing a child’s body.”

The infant was called Mtoto, which means “child” in Swahili, and lived roughly 78,300 years ago, making this the oldest purposeful burial discovered in Africa. “It was a youngster, and someone bid it farewell,” Martinón-Torres explains.

The sediment analysis of the bones indicated that the infant had been deposited in a purposefully created hole and covered with cave floor detritus.

They’d been positioned on their sides, with their legs raised up to their chest. Except for a few critical bones, most of Mtoto’s bones remained in place while the body decomposed.

The clavicle and upper two ribs were dislocated, as would be expected of a body firmly wrapped in a shroud. And Mtoto’s head slanted in the manner of a corpse whose head was propped up on a cushion. This indicates an intentional burial, which is frequently difficult to show using archaeological evidence.

“The work that we have done has allowed us to reconstruct the human behavior around the moment the corpse was placed in the pit,” says Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux in France.

“The writers did an excellent job of establishing that this is an intentional burial.”

“They have lifted the bar and, in my opinion, established the norm for what should be done scientifically to indicate purposeful burial,” says Eleanor Scerri of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. She had nothing to do with the research.

The finding of any ancient human remains in Africa is newsworthy in and of itself. “Human fossils are quite rare in Africa.” “Because we have vast time and geographical gaps, this result is noteworthy,” Scerri explains.

Mtoto’s burial occurred during the Middle Stone Age, which spanned from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago when a suite of modern human advancements emerged in Africa. It is uncommon to find early traces of burials in Africa.

There has been no adult burial remains discovered from this time period. However, the burial of a baby in South Africa’s Border Cave dates to roughly 74,000 years ago, while the tomb of a kid around nine years old in Egypt’s Taramsa Hill dates to around 69,000 years ago.

“I find it quite fascinating that we have interments of two or three youngsters dating from roughly the same date in Africa,” says Paul Pettitt of the University of Durham in the United Kingdom.

“Mtoto’s burial is an extraordinarily early example of a scarce treatment of the deceased that, while typical in the present world, was rare, extraordinary, and presumably characterized strange deaths throughout the early antiquity of our species.”

This absence of burial demonstrates how modern human funerary traditions in Africa varied from those of Neanderthals and modern humans in Eurasia. They buried their deceased as early as 120,000 years ago.

“That’s rather a conundrum,” d’Errico remarks. “These contemporary humans wait a long time to build primary graves in Africa, where we find the genesis of symbolic conduct in the form of beads and abstract carvings.”

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