PARIS: A child no older than three laid to rest sideways in an earthen grave 78,000 years ago, legs carefully tucked up against its tiny chest, is the earliest known human burial in Africa, researchers reported on Wednesday.
The sunken pit, in a cave complex along the coast of Kenya, was bereft of ornaments, offerings or ochre-coloured clay carvings found in the region’s more recent Stone Age graves, they detailed in the journal Nature.
But Mtoto — Swahili for “child” — had been wrapped in a shroud with her or his head resting on what was probably a pillow, “indicating that the community may have undertaken some form of funerary rite”, said lead author Maria Martinon-Torres, director of the National Research Centre on Human Evolution, in Burgos, Spain.
The extraordinary find highlights the emergence of both complex social behaviour among Homo sapiens, and cultural differences across populations of modern humans in Africa and beyond. Fragments of the child’s bones were dug up at the Panga ya Saidi caves in 2013, but it wasn’t until five years later that the shallow, circular grave — three metres below the cave floor — was fully exposed, revealing a tight cluster and decomposed bones.
“At this point, we weren’t sure what we had found,” said Emmanuel Ndiema of the National Museum of Kenya. “The bones were just too delicate to study in the field.” Archaeologists stabilised and plastered them into a bundle and transported them, first to the museum and then to the research centre in Spain. “We started uncovering parts of the skull and face,” Martinon-Torres said.
“The articulation of the spine and the ribs was also astonishingly well preserved, even conserving the curvature of the thorax cage.”
Subsequent microscopic analysis and luminescence dating confirmed that Mtoto’s tiny body had been carefully covered with dirt from around the pit, and had rested undisturbed for nearly 80,000 years.
‘Homo sapiens originated in Africa, but little is known about mortuary practices on the continent compared to Europe and the Middle East, where even older human burial sites have been unearthed, including one in Israel thought to be 120,000 years old.