Australian researchers help date ancient child’s burial to 78,000 years

By Melissa Coade

Thursday May 6, 2021

Maasai sitting by the ocean on the beach
Maasai sitting by the ocean on the beach. (Image: Adobe/shangarey)

The earliest known deliberate burial of humans living in Africa has been found in a cave in Kenya, with the discovery of bone fragments of a small child.

The body of a small 2.5-3-year old child, known by researchers as ‘Mtoto’ (‘child’ in Swahili), was buried in the cave near the coast of Kenya, on its side and with legs drawn up to its chest. 

The finding at Panga ya Saidi, reported in Nature this week, is believed to be the earliest known evidence of funerary internment by modern humans in Africa. Researchers have dated the burial to around 78,300 years ago and say it offers a glimpse into the early complex social behaviours in Homo sapiens

Archaeologist Dr Patrick Faulkner from the University of Sydney was one of 36 international researchers who contributed to the study. 

“This is a very exciting discovery, it’s something we haven’t seen in Africa before. It is really important on a global level, filling in a critical gap in our understanding of the development of complex human behaviours,” Dr Faulkner said.

This evidence — along with previous reports of putative Middle Stone Age burials — suggests that modern humans in Africa had different ways of honouring their dead, compared to the rituals of Neanderthals and early modern humans in Eurasia, who often buried their dead in residential sites from at least around 120,000 years ago. 

In this way, the child burial also highlights regional diversity in the evolution of the human species.

In the Nature paper, the international team of researchers describe a partial skeleton of a toddler with dental features consistent with Homo sapiens, and recovered from Middle Stone Age layers. Later analysis of Mtoto’s teeth identified their age as between 2.5 and 3 years.

An artist’s interpretation of Mtoto’s burial by Fernando Fueyo.

Inside Mtoto’s funerary pit, three metres from the current floor, the body was covered in sediment from the cave. Archaeologists also uncovered the remnants of a ‘modified’ African land snail located very close to Mtoto’s body, featuring deep incisions in its shell that archaeologists theorise may have served a decorative purpose.

“It’s difficult to interpret this kind of evidence from a single specimen, so we can’t clearly point to ritual, ceremony, or some kind of decoration, but it does suggest human modification in some way,” Dr Faulkner said.

“Not many people realise archaeologists study shells in this way. Rather than being small and insignificant, ancient shells have the potential to tell us a great deal about settlement, economic structures and local environmental conditions. In this case, it provided one piece of the puzzle.”

These archaeological features—along with evidence that the body was rapidly covered and decomposed in situ — indicate that the burial was intentional, the researchers say.

Trench excavation at the Panga ya Saidi cave site. Photo courtesy Mohammad Javad Shoaee.

Excavations at Panga ya Saidi began in 2010 as part of a long-term partnership between archaeologists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (Germany) and the National Museums of Kenya (Nairobi). 

A reconstruction of Mtoto’s position in the burial pit. Image courtesy Jorge González and Elena Santos.

In 2013, portions of Mtoto’s bones were first unearthed during excavations, but it wasn’t until four years later that the small pit containing the bones would be completely visible. 

“At this point, we weren’t sure what we had found. The bones were just too delicate to study in the field,” says Dr Emmanuel Ndiema of the National Museums of Kenya. 

“So we had a find that we were pretty excited about — but it would be a while before we understood its importance.”

Mtoto’s bones located in the shallow, circular pit were tightly clustered and highly decomposed, requiring stabilisation and plastering onsite. 

Once plastered, the cast remains were taken to Spain and subject to further specialised treatment and analysis at the National Research Center on Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos. 

“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,” said CENIEH director Professor María Martinón-Torres.

The excavations at Panga ya Saidi were jointly led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (Jena, Germany) and the National Museums of Kenya (NMK). The conservation and analysis of the Panga ya Saidi skeletal remains were led by CENIEH (Burgos, Spain). The international consortium of scientists included members primarily from organisations and universities in Australia, Kenya, Germany, Spain, France, Canada, South Africa, the UK, and the USA.


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