About 78,000 years ago, at the mouth of a yawning cave complex in today’s south-eastern Kenya, someone placed the body of a three-year-old child on its side in a purpose-dug grave and covered it with earth from the cave floor.
Whatever else was said or done in those moments is lost in time, but this intentional act – described today in a paper in the journal Nature – is the oldest human burial ever uncovered in Africa and offers scientists a window into ancient burial practice.
“It’s a first for Africa,” says Alison Crowther, co-author and archaeologist from the University of Queensland. “Africa is the cradle of our species, Homo sapiens, but we don’t really have much evidence of early burial practices from anywhere on the continent, and practically none from eastern Africa.”
This discovery is a real breakthrough, she explains, because “it gives us this extraordinary, unprecedented glimpse into how our species evolved, both culturally and anatomically”.
The child – nicknamed Mtoto, which means ‘child’ in Swahili – was placed in a flexed position, lying on its side with the knees drawn towards the chest, suggesting it may have been tightly shrouded. The pattern of collapse of the head and neck also suggest that whoever buried the child may have placed a perishable material underneath the head, for support.
All these practices point to a form of funerary rite.
Team member Patrick Faulkner, an archaeologist from the University of Sydney, says finding this oldest human burial in Africa is particularly significant in expanding our current understanding of early human behaviour: “We do see complex behaviour through things like personal ornamentation and symbolism, but this burial adds quite a lot to our understanding of symbolic and conceptual complexity in human populations.
“It clearly demonstrates intentional burial and treatment of the dead at 78,000 years ago. These are complex behaviours linked to complex emotions.”
Intentional burials of early modern humans and Neanderthals have been discovered in Eurasia dating back over 120,000 years. However, only a handful of early human burials have been found in Africa. Given Homo sapiens evolved in Africa before migrating out, it may seem surprising that earlier burials are found in Eurasia. This conspicuous absence in the archaeological record may be a result of different mortuary practices, or perhaps scientists simply haven’t yet looked in the right places.
Other known early burials in Africa are usually of young individuals.
“This might indicate some kind of special treatment of the young, and potentially a process of mourning that is one of the hallmarks of modern behaviour,” Faulkner says – however, it’s important to note that absence of evidence does not always equate to evidence of absence.
The child was first found in 2013 during excavations of the archaeologically rich Panga ya Saidi cave by Germany’s Max Planck Institute, in partnership with the National Museums of Kenya (Nairobi) and archaeologists from around the world. The site was initially targeted as part of a project looking at trade in the Indian Ocean several thousand years ago, but as the team dug deeper they began finding evidence of early symbolic behaviour, such as ochre use and 68,000-year-old beads.
Then in 2013, the child was found three metres down into the trench, although it wasn’t until 2017 that the body was fully exposed.
María Martinón-Torres, lead author and director at the National Research Center on Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, Spain, notes that “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.”
Because the bones were fragile and highly decomposed, a plaster cast was taken in-situ, which was then studied in the lab at CENIEH in Spain. This confirmed that the bones belonged to a two-and-a-half to three-year-old human child.
The team also looked at the child’s teeth, which showed them that while it belonged to our species, it also had some primitive traits. Along with other archaeological evidence of modern humans around the same time period, it demonstrates that populations of Homo sapiens around Africa didn’t all look the same.
“That’s really important because it shows that our species didn’t evolve from a single population in one region of Africa,” Crowther says.
This is evidence for regionalism in our anatomical revolution, she explains – and perhaps even in our cultural evolution, as other younger burial sites have displayed different funerary practices.
Crowther thinks that as fieldwork in Africa continues, we will likely find even older burial sites.
“We know that humans have the capacity for symbolic thought that goes much earlier,” she says. “It seems like only a small leap then for us to go from other symbolic thoughts and capacities to having this complex treatment of the dead.”
Australia, meanwhile, has its own deep record of symbolic human burials. Found in 1969 and 1974 respectively, the bodies of Mungo Lady – one of the earliest cremations on the planet – and Mungo Man are some of the oldest anatomically modern human burials outside of Africa, dating to around 42,000 years ago.
The finds revolutionised the scientific understanding of the deep antiquity of occupation on this continent, and forced the establishment to acknowledge the long ancestry of local Paakantji, Mutthi Mutthi and Ngiyampaa people, who in 2017 reclaimed Mungo Man’s remains from the Australian National University – after decades of campaigning – and brought them back to country.
Amalyah Hart is a science journalist based in Melbourne.
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