Nearly 80,000 years ago, a three-year-old child was carefully laid to rest in a small pit at the entrance of Panga ya Saidi, a cave in eastern Kenya. Locals folded the child’s knees up to the chest and wrapped the body in a shroud. The child’s body was then placed on its right side in the small pit. Locals made it lie on its head on a supportive pillow before scattering soil collected from the nearby cave floor over the body.
For thousands of years, the burial site had not been touched. Now, a team of archaeologists has found that the child’s remains represent the oldest known modern human burial in Africa, according to a study published in Nature.
The discovery gives insight into how people from over 78,000 years ago treated their dead.
Researchers first came across some of the child’s bones in 2013 while doing excavations at the Panga ya Saidi cave site. It wasn’t until four years later that researchers fully uncovered the pit and found the skeleton of the child, who was later nicknamed “Mtoto,” meaning “child” in Swahili.
The skeleton, tightly curled up, was found in a shallow, circular pit about 3 meters deep. Remains that were intact included parts of the skull, face, and lower jawbone, five teeth, the spine and ribs, the right collarbone and left upper arm bone.
The decomposed bones were too fragile for researchers to analyze on-site. Thus, they were covered with plaster and were analyzed at labs at the National Research Centre on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain.
The researchers, after analyzing the teeth, confirmed that the remains were those of a human child who died at about three years old.
They also discovered that the body had been buried deliberately, rather than by natural processes. The position of the skull suggests that it once laid on a pillow that had perished over time. “This type of movement of the head is usually found in those burials where the head is resting over a pillow or perishable support — the moment that support disappears, disintegrates, decays, it creates a space below the head and because of gravity the head tilts,” said study author María Martinón-Torres, director at the National Research Center on Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, Spain.
“We could infer this child… was really put there in a specific position with a pillow under his head. This respect, this care, this tenderness — putting a child lying in an almost a sleeping position: I really think it’s one of most important — the earliest evidence in Africa — of humans living in the physical and the symbolic world,” Martinón-Torres said in a news briefing.
Researchers also found that the microscopic features of the bones, as well as the chemical composition of the soil that surrounded the bones, suggested that the child’s body was “fresh” when it was buried and decomposed in the grave, CNN reported.
The evidence found further suggests that the mortuary behaviors of humans in Africa were entirely different from those of Neanderthals and early humans in Eurasia, who largely buried their dead in residential sites.
While archaeologists have found older human burial sites outside Africa that are between 90,000 and 130,000 years old, the child’s skeleton represents the “earliest evidence of intentional burial in Africa.”
At the moment, only a few ancient human burial sites have been found in Africa, and this has been attributed to poor preservation conditions and lack of fieldwork. “Archaeologists have been very busy in the Near East and Europe for 150 years, with continuous excavations. If the same amount of work happened in Africa, we might find more and older burials,” said Michael Petraglia, coauthor of the study and a professor at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.