The oldest burial in Africa reveals “the root” of a human behavior
The grave is 78,000 years old.
In a remote cave found in the tropical Kenyan hinterland is the burial site of an ancient child. This child is known affectionately by scientists as Mtoto — the “baby” or “kid” in Swahili.
Mtoto died a little more than 78,00 years ago. And according to new research, archaeological clues suggest the child was loved by those who buried it: Excavations that began in 2010 revealed Mtoto was wrapped in a perishable cloth before placed in a grave within the cave, known today as Panga ya Saidi.
This sort of practice might seem commonplace today when the burial business has become a $16-billion industry in the United States. But this is the earliest known human burial in Africa. It’s part of the first chapter of a long story — the story of how we respect the dead.
“It has been very exciting to find the root of a behavior we consider so human-like — our relationship with the dead,” lead author María Martinón Torres, the director of the National Research Center on Human Evolution, tells Inverse.
This landmark finding was published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
What’s new — In the study archaeologists report on the excavation of the Panga ya Saidi cave, the first site in Eastern Africa to reveal human occupation as old as 78,000 years ago.
Portions of bones were found in 2013. In 2017, further work unearthed a small pit containing bones, a skull, and teeth. Subsequent analysis revealed the child was no more than 3 years old when they died. The sex of the child is not known.
The scientists determined that Mtoto had been purposefully buried, based on their findings of a “purposedly excavated pit followed by intentional covering of the corpse.”
The researchers concluded that Mtoto’s body had been delicately wrapped and supported to achieve a specific burial position — not unlike someone positioning a body in a casket.
The findings prove that early modern homo sapiens in eastern Africa were burying members of their group between 78,000 to 79,000 years ago — the earliest known finding of a human burial in Africa. (Other purposeful mortuary behavior has been found in Eurasia, dating to around 120,000 years ago.)
Beyond a striking new addition to humanity’s timeline, the finding reveals a community that cared about a child and prepared an elaborate symbolic ritual as a result.
“More than 78,000 years ago there was a community who felt [strongly] about losing a child and elaborated a warm farewell,” Torres says.
How did burying the dead begin?
Louise Humphrey, a researcher at London’s Natural History Museum who wrote a related perspective on the study, tells Inverse this burial helps us better understand how ancient humans grieved their loved ones.
“One of the most intangible aspects of mortuary behavior relates to the expression of personal loss, which may be reflected in a set of individual behaviors and actions surrounding treatment of the dead,” Humprey says.
“This sense of loss is revealed by the careful placement of the child within the burial at Panga ya Saidi, resting on their side and with the head supported,” he says.
With the discoveries of burial pits and graves, archaeologists can learn more about the customs and practices of ancient peoples.
“The act of burial is not in itself necessarily more meaningful than other treatments of the dead, but there may be aspects of a burial that do reflect a more complex set of beliefs,” Humphrey says.
For example, in 2016 scientists discovered an ancient hominin in Asia buried in cannabis shrouds, possibly hinting at an ancient stoner culture. Recent excavations also hint at the strong bond between pet dogs and ancient humans, who buried their pups in graves.
Meanwhile, the desire to honor the dead is not unique to Homo sapiens: In a 2020 study, scientists announced Neanderthals intentionally buried their dead, revealing one more way Homo sapiens and our ancient sister kin were alike.
How they did it — After they unearthed Mtoto, the archaeologists brought the fragile remains from the shallow cave grave to the laboratory, where they extracted DNA from the samples and used a CT scan to create 3D models of teeth and bones.
They also analyzed the burial pit to determine whether Mtoto had been intentionally buried, as opposed to falling into the pit due to natural circumstances. They subsequently identified the pit as a distinct site via the different colors and textures of the surrounding cave layers, suggesting the child was buried shortly after death.
It may seem like a lot of work, but it’s important scientists undertake the hard task of confirming that supposed burial sites are actually graves and not something else altogether. For example, a 2018 study revealed two sites — Spain’s Sima de los Huesos and South Africa’s Dinaledi Chamber — were not burial grounds as scientists first thought, but rather the result of predators eating ancient humans.
Why it matters — The findings are remarkable for two primary reasons, according to the archaeologists.
1. They reveal burial practices that give us greater into ancient cultures, including the customs and traditions of these societies, depending on the placement of bodies or items in graves.
“Burials are exceptionally valuable sources of information for archaeologists,” Humphrey says.
Humphrey also suggests that these findings can help us better understand the importance of children in these cultures, who may have received special burials.
2. Mtoto’s very body reveals important clues about human evolution. Scientists were able to confirm that Mtoto was a Homo sapien from dental records.
But some of the child’s features were more primitive, challenging the idea that more recent humans would look more “modern” than earlier ones.
“Our morphological analysis confirms it is an H. sapiens, although it preserves some features that are more typically found in earlier samples,” Torres says.
Mtoto’s remains lend support to the Pan African origins theory, which states that our origins can be traced back to different parts of the African continent.
“This finding is in line with the idea that H. sapiens did not evolve in a single locality, but at the same time in different regions of Africa, with populations that were connected and had biological and cultural exchanges,” Torres says.
What’s next — While these findings are exciting, some of the results still puzzle researchers.
For example, there is still a 40,000-year gap between the earliest known human burial in Africa and those found in Eurasia. However, other archeological evidence suggests humans in Africa have a history of complex planning and symbolism going back to 320,000 years ago. There just aren’t ancient burials showcasing this — at least, not yet.
“This is surprising since Africa is classically considered the birth of biological and cultural modernity,” Torres says. “We do not know the reasons for it at the moment.”
Torres speculates that geographical bias could be partly responsible, meaning researchers should conduct more fieldwork in Africa — specifically, Panga ya Saidi — in an effort to uncover burials of early Homo sapiens.
“If they buried a 3-year old child — if this was part of their behavioral repertoire — it is possible that other burials may be discovered,” Torres says.
Abstract: The origin and evolution of hominin mortuary practices are topics of intense interest and debate. Human burials dated to the Middle Stone Age (MSA) are exceedingly rare in Africa and unknown in East Africa1–6. Here we describe the partial skeleton of a roughly 2.5- to 3.0-year-old child dating to 78.3 ± 4.1 thousand years ago, which was recovered in the MSA layers of Panga ya Saidi (PYS), a cave site in the tropical upland coast of Kenya7,8. Recent excavations have revealed a pit feature containing a child in a flexed position. Geochemical, granulometric and micromorphological analyses of the burial pit content and encasing archaeological layers indicate that the pit was deliberately excavated. Taphonomical evidence, such as the strict articulation or good anatomical association of the skeletal elements and histological evidence of putrefaction, support the in-place decomposition of the fresh body. The presence of little or no displacement of the unstable joints during decomposition points to an interment in a filled space (grave earth), making the PYS finding the oldest known human burial in Africa. The morphological assessment of the partial skeleton is consistent with its assignment to Homo sapiens, although the preservation of some primitive features in the dentition supports increasing evidence for non-gradual assembly of modern traits during the emergence of our species. The PYS burial sheds light on how MSA populations interacted with the dead.