Archaeologists have uncovered the oldest known human burial in Africa: a young child laid to rest in a shallow grave 78,000 years ago.
Research published Wednesday in the journal Nature details the excavation of the child’s grave at the mouth of the Panga ya Saidi cave site along the coastline of southeastern Kenya.
Excited to announce our discovery of the earliest Homo sapiens burial in Africa, the outcome of a fantastic collaboration at Panga ya Saidi in #Kenya, with @endiema, @MMartinonT and a large team of international researchers. #Archaeology #humanevolutionhttps://t.co/0D2iy4ZQlu pic.twitter.com/xg8Wovm8OO
— Nicole Boivin (@NicoleLBoivin) May 5, 2021
Africa Tembelea understands that researchers first discovered portions of the child’s bones during excavations in 2013 and spent the next several years digging and casting the fragile bones in plaster.
“At this point, we weren’t sure what we had found. The bones were just too delicate to study in the field,” Emmanuel Ndiema of the National Museums of Kenya said in a release. “We had a find that we were pretty excited about – but it would be a while before we understood its importance.”
The specimen was then transported to a laboratory for detailed analysis. Researchers were later able to study teeth and confirm the remains belonged to a 2 to 3-year-old human, who was later nicknamed “Mtoto,” which means “child” in Swahili.
Scans of the specimen revealed that the child’s body had been laid in a fetal position with knees tucked up towards the chest, and the position of the skull suggests it may have been laid on a headrest or pillow. Researchers believe the body may have been wrapped tightly in a shroud material before burial, and they determined the child was intentionally buried shortly after death.
“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,” María Martinón-Torres, director of the National Research Center on Human Evolution (CENIEH) is quoted to have said.
The discovery is helping archaeologists understand emotional life in the early days of Homo Sapiens.