The oldest known grave in Africa is that of a three-year-old child who died 78,000 years ago. The find sheds light on how people in the area handled their ancestors at the time.
In Kenya’s Panga ya Saidi cave, researchers discovered the top of a bundle of bones in 2017.
Because the bones were so fragile, a block of silt was removed intact and transferred to Spain’s National Research Centre on Human Evolution (CENIEH), where a full forensic study was performed.
CENIEH’s Mara Martinón-Torres adds, “We didn’t know what was going on in there until a year later.” “Unexpectedly, the silt block contained the corpse of a kid.”
The baby was named Mtoto, which means “child” in Swahili, and lived about 78,300 years ago, making it Africa’s oldest planned burial. Martinón-Torres recalls, “It was a child, and someone said it goodbye.”
The newborn had been buried in an intentionally made hole and covered with cave floor trash, according to the sediment study of the bones.
They’d been lying down on their sides, their legs lifted to their chests. The majority of Mtoto’s bones stayed in place while the corpse decayed, with the exception of a few key bones.
As one would anticipate from a corpse covered in a shroud, the clavicle and top two ribs were displaced. Mtoto’s head tilted, as if he was a corpse with his head propped up on a pillow. This shows a deliberate burial, which might be difficult to demonstrate using archaeological data.
Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux in France says, “The work we’ve done has enabled us to recreate the human activity surrounding the time the body was deposited in the pit.”
“The authors did a fantastic job of proving that this was a purposeful burying.”
Eleanor Scerri of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History says, “They have raised the bar and, in my view, set the standard for what should be done scientifically to demonstrate deliberate burial.” She had no involvement in the study.
In and of itself, the discovery of any ancient human remains in Africa is noteworthy. “In Africa, human fossils are quite uncommon.” “This conclusion is important since we have enormous temporal and geographical gaps,” Scerri notes.
Mtoto was buried during the Middle Stone Age, which stretched 300,000 to 30,000 years ago, when Africa saw the emergence of a series of contemporary human accomplishments. Early indications of burials are very rare in Africa.
There are no adult burial remains from this time period that have been found. However, a baby’s tomb in South Africa’s Border Cave dates from approximately 74,000 years ago, while a child’s tomb in Egypt’s Taramsa Hill dates from around 69,000 years ago.
“It fascinates me that we have interments in Africa of two or three young people from around the same era,” says Paul Pettitt of the University of Durham in the United Kingdom.
“Mtoto’s burial is an exceptionally early example of a peculiar treatment of the dead that, although common in today’s world, was uncommon, remarkable, and apparently defined weird deaths throughout our species’ early history.”
This lack of burial shows how modern human funeral practices in Africa differed from Neanderthal and modern human funerary traditions in Eurasia. They began burying their ancestors 120,000 years ago.
“That’s a bit of a puzzle,” d’Errico observes. “In Africa, where we discover the birth of symbolic behavior in the form of beads and abstract engravings, these current people wait a long time to make main burials.”