The remains of a human child who died some 78,000 years ago, which were carefully interred by its community, have been discovered in Kenya, making this specimen the oldest known human burial in Africa.
Given the scarcity of known human burials in Africa during this time period, known as the Middle Stone Age (MSA) the rare discovery “sheds light on how MSA populations interacted with the dead” and suggests that these early humans “were intentionally preserving the corpses of young members of their groups,” according to a study published on Wednesday in Nature.
The toddler was about three when it died, and has been nicknamed “Mtoto” after the Swahili word for “child.” Its skeleton was found in 2017 during an excavation of Panga ya Saidi, a rich archaeological cave site near the southeast Kenyan coast. Mtoto’s remains were located inside a pit about 10 feet under the modern surface of the cave, and were in such delicate condition that the entire sediment block was removed and transported to the National Research Center on Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, Spain.
Researchers led by María Martinón-Torres, director of CENIEH and honorary professor at the University College London, then used advanced imaging techniques to probe the specimen. The results of these digital scans, along with careful manual cleaning of the specimen, gradually revealed the partial skeleton of Mtoto, who was identified as a member of Homo sapiens, our own species.
But it wasn’t only the child’s bones that intrigued Martinón-Torres and her international team, which included researchers from the National Museums of Kenya. Geochemical analysis of the sediment surrounding the skeleton showed that this dirt was distinct from the layers of the pit. This difference in composition suggests that Mtoto’s body was deliberately laid in a pit grave that was dug out by its community, then covered with soil that originated from elsewhere.
In addition, the position of the child’s bones were also “typical of tightly shrouded burial” consistent with “the upper part of the body being wrapped in a perishable cloth or material, or the body being densely packed within its pit structure,” the team said in the study.
The researchers concluded that the most parsimonious interpretation of all these clues was that Mtoto’s remains represent the earliest known evidence of an intentional burial in Africa. The discovery helps to fill in a persistent gap in our knowledge of funerary practices on the continent, which are far more rare in this period compared to numerous burials unearthed in Eurasia.
Indeed, the reason this discovery is considered the oldest human burial in Africa, and not the world, is that modern humans and their cousins, Neanderthals, had been commonly interring their dead in Eurasia for about 40,000 years before Mtoto’s time. Infant and child burials are described as “ubiquitous” in the new study, making up about half of all funeral interments in the Levant and Europe.
The abundance of burials in Northern regions, relative to those found in Africa, remains unexplained. African populations may not have performed as many burials, or they might have followed cultural practices that left more elusive traces. A lack of archaeological field work across Africa, compared to extensive excavation efforts in Eurasia, may also explain the disparity.
That’s what makes Mtoto such a special find: the body of this infant who lived so long ago is a rare window into the minds of our early ancestors, and their conception of life and death.
“The [Panga ya Saidi] burial shows that inhumation of the dead is a practice shared by populations living in and out of Africa during the last interglacial period,” Martinón-Torres and her colleagues concluded.