Unearthing of a Tiny Child Reveals Africa's Oldest Known Human Burial

The toddler's ancient remains provided an intimate look into the minds and hearts of humans that lived 78,000 years ago.
Derya Ozdemir
Virtual ideal reconstruction of Mtoto’s position in the burial pitJorge González García and Elena Santos

A coastal cave in Kenya sheltered the body of a tiny child no longer than three, who was arrayed as if still sleeping, in a purposely dug grave for roughly 78,000 years. Unearthed by archeologists, it is the oldest human burial discovered in Africa to date.

Archeological clues tell that the child was loved by those who buried it: Its body was wrapped in a perishable cloth before it was placed in a grave with legs drawn up to the chest, according to a press release. The toddler's head was resting on what was probably a makeshift pillow.

Unearthing of a Tiny Child Reveals Africa's Oldest Known Human Burial
An artist’s interpretation of Mtoto’s burial. Source: Fernando Fueyo

Affectionately named Mtoto (Swahili for "kid" or "baby") by the scientists who found it, extensive forensic and microscopic analysis of the toddler has now been published in the journal Nature, providing clues into the workings of the early human mind. 

The findings

Back in 2013, fragments of Mtoto's bones were dug up at the Panga ya Saidi caves. Five years later, the shallow grave would be fully exposed, and a multinational team of archaeologists led by the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany would cast the whole grave in plaster to safely relocate the body to a laboratory.

Unearthing of a Tiny Child Reveals Africa's Oldest Known Human Burial
The excavation. Source: Mohammad Javad Shoaee

After more than a year of preparation and analysis using non-invasive imaging techniques such as micro-computed tomography and optical microscopy, a toddler that was a member of our own species, Homo sapiens, appeared before the scientists' eyes, seemingly at rest.

Unearthing of a Tiny Child Reveals Africa's Oldest Known Human Burial
Virtual reconstruction of the Panga ya Saidi hominin remains at the site (left) and ideal reconstruction of the child’s original position at the moment of finding (right). Source: Jorge González García and Elena Santos

"We think the child was wrapped in a shroud made of leaves or animal skins - like he was placed in his last sleep," Prof María Martinón-Torres, director of Spain's National Research Center on Human Evolution, told BBC. "There is such a delicacy and intention that really expresses feelings from the group towards this child."

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The child was buried at home, Panga ya Saidi cave, which was frequently occupied by living humans. "All this behavior meant something - maybe grief, maybe not letting him go," Prof Martinón-Torres said.

Why is it important?

The burial took place during the Middle Stone Age, a period where many of the more complex aspects of modern human behavior thought to have first appeared.

Although there are several older human burials in the Middle East and Europe -- with the oldest being in Israel and dating to around 120,000 years old, this find is still remarkable as to the important clues it reveals about ancient humans' relationship with the dead. 

Mtoto has become the third child to join two other, slightly younger burials in Africa. Moreover, infant and children burials account for about half of all recorded interments from that period until the end of the Middle Stone Age. 

Paul Pettitt, an expert on Paleolithic burial from Durham University who was not involved in the research, told National Geographic, "Modern hunter-gatherer groups believe that death is natural and inevitable. But there are two exceptions: death through trauma, and the death of infants and children. Perhaps we can see the shadowy emergence of the sense that death coming too early is unnatural and needs to be marked in some way that is different from the norm."

Once archeologists begin to investigate more closely at the sites on the African continent, it's almost inevitable that even older human burials will be discovered. You can watch the video below to learn more about this landmark discovery:

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