Archaeologists have discovered the grave of a child, “Mtoto”, who had been laid to rest 78,000 years ago.
Little was known about the mortuary practices of Stone Age populations in Africa, but that’s changed now as scientists have discovered a child buried 78,000 years ago in the mouth of the Panga ya Saidi cave in Kenya.
Analysis of a pit containing a child of circa 3 years of age in a fetal position revealed that it was deliberately excavated under the overhang of the cave, making the finding the oldest known human burial in Africa. The scientists call the child “Mtoto”, a nickname meaning “child” in Swahili.
The discovery is the result of a long term research project between the Max Planck Institute for Science of Human History in Germany, and the National Museums of Kenya that first started in 2010, when excavations began on the site.
The group of scientists discovered some of the child’s bones in 2013 and again in 2017 when they discovered the pit. It took some time for them to fully understand the significance of what they had unearthed.
“At this point, we weren’t sure what we had found. The bones were just too delicate to study in the field,” said Dr Emmanuel Ndiema
of the National Museums of Kenya.
“So we had a find that we were pretty excited about - but it would be a while before we understood its importance.”
Upon the excavation, the bones and surrounding sediment remains were finally taken to Burgos, Spain, where the CENIEH scientists are based.
“We started uncovering parts of the skull and face, with the intact articulation of the mandible and some unerupted teeth in place,” said Professor María Martinón-Torres, director of National Research Center on Human Evolution (CENIEH).
“The articulation of the spine and the ribs was also astonishingly preserved, even conserving the curvature of the thorax cage, suggesting that it was an undisturbed burial and that the decomposition of the body took place right in the pit where the bones were found.”
New information about ancient practices
The discovery isn’t the oldest in the world, but in Africa, where Homo sapiens originated.
The position of the child’s head, which was raised by a pillow-like support, suggested that there might have been a funeral. The Max Planck Institute says it’s possible that the ancient practice may have been particularly used for children.
The discovery is particularly remarkable for giving a new glimpse into what makes us human and especially how we treat our dead, CENIEH said. Apparently, humans in ancient times in Africa attached a deeper meaning to the end of life, instead of just disposing of the bodies.
“When we start seeing behaviors where there is real interest in the dead, and they exceed the time and investment of resources needed for practical reasons, that’s when we start to see the symbolic mind,” Professor Martinón-Torres explained.
“That’s what makes this so special. We’re looking [at] a behavior that we consider ourselves so typical of humans—and unique—which is establishing a relationship with the dead.”
Stone tools were also found with the human remains - a discovery that the scientists think may be linked to several hominini species. It suggests the burial may have taken place during an era when those humans began using advanced tool technologies.
“The association between this child’s burial and Middle Stone Age tools has played a critical role in demonstrating that Homo sapiens was, without doubt, a definite manufacturer of these distinctive tool industries, as opposed to other hominin species,” notes Ndiema.