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Remains of a 3-year-old child are the oldest known burial in Africa

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This partial skeleton (left) and skull were discovered in a cave in Kenya

Martinón-Torres, et al., 2021

The oldest known burial in Africa is of a 3-year-old child who died around 78,000 years ago. The discovery sheds light on how people in the region cared for their dead at that time.

In 2017, archaeologists uncovered the top of a bundle of bones in a cave in Kenya called Panga ya Saidi. The remains were so fragile that a block of sediment around the bones was extracted intact and sent to the National Research Centre on Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Spain, where a painstaking forensic investigation took place.

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“We didn’t know until a year later what was really going on in there,” says María Martinón-Torres at CENIEH. “Unexpectedly, that sediment block was holding the body of a child.”

The researchers named the child Mtoto, which means “child” in Swahili, and estimate that they lived around 78,300 years ago, making this the oldest deliberate burial found in Africa. “It was a child and someone gave it a farewell,” says Martinón-Torres.

Analysis of the sediment surrounding the remains revealed that the child had been placed in a deliberately excavated pit and covered with sediment from the cave floor. They had been placed on their side with their legs drawn up to their chest. As the body decayed, most of Mtoto’s bones stayed in position with the exception of a few key ones.

The collarbone and top two ribs were displaced in a way typical of a body tightly bound in a shroud. And Mtoto’s head had the characteristic tilt of a corpse whose head was placed on a cushion. This points to a deliberate burial, something that is often difficult to prove from archaeological remains.

“From these little pieces of bone that were preserved, the work that we have done has allowed us to reconstruct the human behaviour surrounding the moment the body was put in the pit,” says Francesco d’Errico at the University of Bordeaux, France.

“The authors did a fantastic job in making the case that this is a deliberate burial. They have raised the bar and, in my opinion, actually set the standard on what should be done, scientifically, to demonstrate deliberate burial,” says Eleanor Scerri at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, who wasn’t involved with the research.

The discovery of any ancient human remains in Africa is big news in itself. “Human fossils are rare everywhere in Africa. We have huge temporal and spatial gaps, so this discovery is extremely important,” says Scerri..

Mtoto’s burial took place in the Middle Stone Age, which spans from roughly 300,000 to 30,000 years ago, when a suite of modern human innovations developed in Africa. Early evidence of burials in Africa is rare. No buried adults have been found from this period, although the burial of an infant in Border cave in South Africa dates to around 74,000 years ago, and the burial of a child who was about 9 years old in Taramsa Hill, Egypt, dates to around 69,000 years ago.

“I find it very interesting that we have interments of two or three children in Africa dating to around the same period,” says Paul Pettitt of the University of Durham, UK. “Mtoto’s burial is an exceptionally early example of a very rare treatment of the dead which might be commonplace in the modern world, but during the early prehistory of our species was rare, exceptional and probably marked odd deaths.”

This lack of burials shows the mortuary practices of modern humans in Africa differed from those of Neanderthals and modern humans in Eurasia, who, from about 120,000 years ago, commonly buried their dead. “That is a quite a paradox,” says d’Errico. “In Africa, where we have the origin of symbolic behaviour in the form of beads and abstract engravings, these modern humans wait quite long to make primary burials.”

Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03457-8

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