Child’s grave is the oldest human burial found in Africa

Seemingly once wrapped in a shroud, head nestled on a pillow, the remains of a child unearthed in Kenya may illuminate the deep origins of burial as a ritual practice.

Published 6 May 2021, 09:30 BST
Mtoto skull

This skull, dated to around 78,000 years ago, was among the remains of an early human found buried in a cave in Kenya. After months of painstaking work, scientists revealed the body of a 2- to 3-year-old nicknamed Mtoto, Swahili for “child.” This view shows the left side of the skull with the jawbone intact, including two unerupted teeth with unformed roots, lower left.

Photograph by María Martinón-Torres, National Research Center on Human Evolution (CENIEH)

In a tour de force of discovery, recovery, and analysis, an interdisciplinary research team has uncovered the earliest known human burial in Africa. The grave, found less than 10 miles inland from southeast Kenya’s lush ocean beaches, contained the remains of a two- to three-year-old child buried with extraordinary care by a community of early Homo sapiens some 78,000 years ago. While some human burials in the Middle East and Europe are older, the find in Africa provides one of the earliest unequivocal examples anywhere of a body interred in a pit prepared for that purpose and covered with earth.

“This is unambiguously a burial, unambiguously dated. Very early. Very impressive,” says Paul Pettitt of Durham University in England, an expert on Palaeolithic burial who was not involved in the research.

The remains also offer a rare glimpse into the workings of the early human mind—and heart. Described online today in the journal Nature, the fossil has been nicknamed “Mtoto”—Swahili for "child"—and it joins two other, slightly younger burials in Africa that also involve children. While three instances across an entire continent hardly make a hefty sample, Pettitt finds the ages of the deceased particularly telling in understanding the development of burial as a ritual practice.

Based on the way the remains had shifted position, the researchers suspect that some perishable material was placed as a pillow under the child’s head at burial and later decomposed.

Photograph by Illustration by Fernando Fueyo

A virtual reconstruction of the remains is superimposed over a transparent comparative skeleton as it was found in the floor of the Panga ya Saidi cave. Microscopic analysis of the bones and surrounding soil confirmed that the child was intentionally buried shortly after death.

Photograph by Image by Jorge González García, University of South Florida and Elena Santos, University Complutense of Madrid

“Modern hunter-gatherer groups believe that death is natural and inevitable,” he says. “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.”

Shrouded in time

Mtoto’s grave was found in Panga ya Saidi, a massive cave system sprawled along an escarpment paralleling the Kenyan coast. The system has been under excavation since 2010 by a team led by the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany.

So far the site has yielded tens of thousands of stone tools, shell beads, butchered animal remains, and other artefacts, offering testimony to a continuum of human use from the present day to 80,000 years ago during a period in Africa known as the Middle Stone Age.

“This site was always conducive to occupation,” says Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute. “People never completely disappeared.”

In 2013 the team discovered a pit-like structure some 10 feet below the present floor of the cave. Further work in 2017 revealed what appeared to be decomposed bone. The powdery material proved too fragile to excavate in the field, so the team decided to encase the bones and surrounding sediment in a plaster cast and transport the block to Nairobi for further study.

Thus began a remarkable post-mortem journey. Initial excavation at the National Museum’s lab revealed two teeth near the surface of the block that appeared to be human.

“We knew then we were into something big,” says Emmanuel Ndiema, head of the museum’s archaeology department and a member of the research team. “But the specimen was extremely delicate, beyond our capacity to prepare it.”

Ndiema personally delivered the fossil to colleagues at the Max Planck Institute in Jena. From there it travelled to the National Research Center on Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, Spain. The specimen underwent more than a year of preparation and analysis, using micro-computed tomography, optical microscopy, and other non-invasive imaging techniques, as well as manual excavation when the delicate state of the bones allowed.

Gradually the full import of the specimen emerged: first an articulated spine, then the base of a skull, then the lower jawbone and juvenile teeth roots. In another section of the block, the team found ribs and shoulder bones in their natural anatomical positions.

“Everything was in place,” says CENIEH director María Martinón-Torres, who led the research. “It was not just some fossil. We have a body. We have a child.”

Besides the articulated state of the skeleton, several other lines of evidence suggested that the child had been purposefully buried soon after its death. The sediments within the pit were clearly different from the surrounding sediments, and they contained an abundance of shells and tracks from snails that feed on earthworms found around corpses buried in bare earth.

Geochemical analysis also revealed chemicals in the soil produced by the action of flesh-eating bacteria, which accounted for the highly decomposed state of the bones. As the flesh and organs of the child decomposed, the spaces left behind gradually filled with sediment, so that the rib cage retained its three-dimensional shape. But the upper ribs had rotated 90 degrees, which would occur if the body had been closely packed into the pit or, more likely, tightly swathed in a shroud of some material, perhaps animal skin or large leaves, that had long since decomposed.

To preserve the bones, scientists removed a block of material from the cave for careful cleaning in the lab. Here. the flexed spine with articulated vertebrae and ribs, arching from top middle to lower right, as well as some teeth, left, are partially exposed on the surface.

Photograph by María Martinón-Torres, National Research Center on Human Evolution (CENIEH)

Finally, the position of the head and cervical vertebrae in relation to the body indicated that the shrouded child had been laid to rest with its head on some sort of pillow—a poignant moment in the life of an early human community, one that the team captured just before all traces of the child’s remains vanished.  

“The bones were literally turning to powder,” says Martinón-Torres. “We arrived just in time, before they finally disappeared.”

Connections to the dead

The other early modern human child burials known in Africa include an eight- to 10-year-old from a site called Taramsa Hill in Egypt, believed to be around 69,000 years old, and an infant from Border Cave in South Africa, with an estimated age of 74,000 years. (Both fossils are less certainly dated than the Panga ya Saidi burial.)

Both the Border Cave infant, found in 1941, and the newfound Panga ya Saidi burial reveal a keen bond between the dead children and those who laid them to rest. In Kenya, it appears that attendants provided Mtoto with a shroud and pillow, while in South Africa they left a pierced shell ornament covered in pigment. This raises the question of why humans started burying their dead in the first place.

“We cannot read their minds,” says Martinón-Torres, “but in a way, by burying someone you are prolonging the life of that person. You are saying, I don’t want to let you go completely. This is one of the things that makes us unique: awareness of death, awareness of life.”  

The child was found directly under a sheltered overhang at the mouth of the Panga ya Saidi cave site near Kenya’s tropical upland coast.

Photograph by Mohammad Javad Shoaee, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

Pettitt thinks that the child graves could represent a tradition of giving special treatment to deceased children as early as the Middle Stone Age. More evidence will of course be needed—and that raises another question: There are abundant reported ancient burials in Europe and the Middle East, both of Neanderthals and modern humans, some as old as 120,000 years before the present. Why are there only three in Africa?

One answer lies in the shifting views of what constitutes a burial. Archaeologists in the early to mid-20th century, when most Neanderthal and early modern human fossils in Europe and Western Asia were uncovered, lacked today’s rigorous standards of excavation, and researchers were more likely to draw conclusions about ritualised burial behavior from scant evidence.

According to Pettitt, many of the non-African sites commonly cited as burials are better seen as examples of “funerary caching,” or merely disposing of a dead body by placing it in a crevice or cave, without any sign of ritual. One such site is Sima de los Huesos—“the Pit of Bones”—in Spain’s Atapuerca mountains, where dozens of skeletons belonging to a Neanderthal ancestor have been uncovered, dating to some 430,000 years ago.

Another example, perhaps, in Africa are 15 skeletons of a relatively new hominin species called Homo naledi, found in a chamber deep within a cave system in South Africa and dated to some 250,000 years ago. Lee Berger, the discovery team’s leader and a National Geographic Explorer, has argued that Homo naledi was deliberately disposing of its dead, but how the bodies actually got into the chamber remains uncertain.

Portions of the child’s bones were found during excavations at Panga ya Saidi in 2013, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the small pit containing the bones was fully exposed. About 10 feet below the current cave floor, the shallow, circular pit contained tightly clustered but highly decomposed bones, requiring stabilisation and plastering in the field.

Photograph by Mohammad Javad Shoaee, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

Even subtracting sites that are more likely examples of funerary caching, the record for burials in Europe and the Middle East begins earlier and is more abundant than in Africa, where Homo sapiens first evolved.

Perhaps we haven’t found more burials in Africa because we haven’t been looking in enough places. Scientists have been combing the caves and crevices of Europe and the Middle East since the turn of the last century. By contrast, research in Africa has focused on relatively few locations, mainly in South Africa and in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa. Currently, we have fossils from perhaps as little as 10 percent of the continent, notes Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London who has spent decades studying modern human origins.

“We’re dealing with little pockets of information,” says Stringer. “This find is really just a clue to what we’re missing from the rest of Africa.”

One African site that promises further revelations is Panga ya Saidi itself. The deposits there continue well below Mtoto’s burial, with layers representing slices of time perhaps as deep as 400,000 years ago. Work was halted last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the research team is eager to resume digging as soon as it’s safe to proceed.

“We still don’t know how far down we can go,” says Ndiema. “We haven’t gotten to the basement yet.”

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