Scientists Find Earliest Known Human Burial in Africa

While anatomically modern humans originated in Africa around 200,000 years ago, the excavation of a child’s remains buried at the mouth of a cave on the coast of Kenya 78,000 years ago is teaching scientists how Middle Stone Age populations interacted with their dead.

Ideal reconstruction of Mtoto’s original position at the moment of its discovery at the site. (Photo credit: Martinón-Torres, et al., 2021)

(CN) — Archeologists have discovered the oldest human burial in Africa, revealing important information about the origin and development of mortuary practices on the continent where our species originated.

While anatomically modern humans originated in Africa around 200,000 years ago, the excavation of a child’s remains buried at the mouth of the Panga ya Saidi cave site in the tropical upland coast of Kenya 78,000 years ago has a story to tell about how people in the Middle Stone Age interacted with their dead.

Archaeologists first found portions of bones in 2013, but it took four years of work in the shallow, circular pit to expose the base of a skull and the articulated spine of a child that scientists later nicknamed “Mtoto,” meaning child in Swahili. The bones were tightly clustered and highly decomposed, requiring stabilization and plastering in the field.

Despite being home to the earliest signs of modern human behavior, early evidence of burials in Africa is scarce, prompting archeologists to feel cautiously optimistic about their discovery.

“At this point, we weren’t sure what we had found,” said Dr. Emmanuel Ndiema of the National Museums of Kenya. “The bones were just too delicate to study in the field. So we had a find that we were pretty excited about — but it would be a while before we understood its importance.”

Panga ya Saidi has been an important site for human origins research since excavations began in 2010. The research being conducted there involves a partnership between archaeologists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (Jena, Germany) and the National Museums of Kenya (Nairobi).

“As soon as we first visited Panga ya Saidi, we knew that it was special,” said Nicole Boivin, director of the archaeology department at the MPI for the Science of Human History. “Repeated seasons of excavation at Panga ya Saidi have now helped to establish it as a key type site for the East African coast, with an extraordinary 78,000-year record of early human cultural, technological and symbolic activities.”

Mtoto’s plastered remains were flown first to the National Museum in Nairobi and later to the National Research Center on Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, Spain, for analysis.

Two teeth led researchers to suspect that the remains could be human. A microCT scan confirmed that the teeth belonged to a human child approximately 2 1/2 to 3 years old.

Several months of painstaking excavation in CENIEH’s labs led to more discoveries.

“We started uncovering parts of the skull and face, with the intact articulation of the mandible and some unerupted teeth in place,” explains Professor María Martinón-Torres, director at 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.”

Microscopic analysis confirmed that the body was rapidly covered after burial and that decomposition took place in the pit where the child’s remains were found, indicating that Mtoto was intentionally buried shortly after death.

Further evidence supported this finding. The child’s flexed body, found lying on the right side with knees drawn toward the chest, represents a tightly shrouded burial with deliberate preparation. Even more remarkable, “the position and collapse of the head in the pit suggested that a perishable support may have been present, such as a pillow, indicating that the community may have undertaken some form of funerary rite,” Martinón-Torres notes.

Burial in residential localities, such as the cave site where Mtoto was discovered, suggest mourning behavior and the intention to keep the dead nearby. The child’s remains were found in archaeological levels with stone tools belonging to the African Middle Stone Age. Later interments from Africa’s Stone Age also include young individuals, perhaps signaling special treatment of children’s bodies in this ancient period.

“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.

While burials of Neanderthals and modern humans in Eurasia date back as far as 120,000 years, the Panga ya Saidi find represents the earliest evidence of intentional burial in Africa.

“The Panga ya Saidi burial shows that inhumation of the dead is a cultural practice shared by Homo sapiens and Neanderthals,” said Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute in Jena. “This find opens up questions about the origin and evolution of mortuary practices between two closely related human species, and the degree to which our behaviors and emotions differ from one another.”

The researchers published their findings Wednesday in the journal Nature.

%d bloggers like this: