CM – The oldest human burial in Africa has been revealed

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May 5, 2021

from the Max Planck Society

Although the earliest signs of modern human behavior are at home, early evidence of burial in Africa is rare and often ambiguous. Hence, little is known about the origin and evolution of funeral practices on the continent of the birth of our species. A child buried at the mouth of the Panga ya Saidi Cave 78,000 years ago changes this and shows how the Mesolithic populations interacted with the dead.

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Panga ya Saidi has been an important site for research into human origins since the excavations began in 2010. This is part of a long-term partnership between archaeologists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (Jena, Germany) and the National Museums of Kenya (Nairobi).

« When we visited Panga ya Saidi for the first time, we knew that it’s something special, « says Professor Nicole Boivin, principal researcher of the original project and director of the Department of Archeology at the MPI for the Science of Human History. « The site is truly unique. Repeated excavation periods at Panga ya Saidi have now helped establish it as a key type for the East African coast, with an exceptional 78,000-year record of early human culture, technology and symbolism activities. »

Parts of the child’s bones were first found during excavations in Panga ya Saidi in 2013, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the small pit feature with the bones was fully exposed. About ten feet below the current cave floor, the shallow, circular pit contained tightly bundled and severely decomposed bones that had to be stabilized and plastered in the field.

« At this point, we weren’t sure what we’d found. The Bones were just too sensitive to study in the field, « says Dr. Emmanuel Ndiema of the National Museums of Kenya. « So we had a find that we were quite excited about – but it would take a while to understand its meaning. »

After the plastering, the cast remains were first taken to the National Museum in Nairobi and later to the Laboratories of the National Research Center for Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, Spain, to be further excavated, specialized and analyzed.

Two teeth uncovered during the first laboratory excavation of the sedimentary block suggested the researchers that the remains could be humans. Later work at CENIEH confirmed that the teeth belonged to a 2.5 to 3 year old human child who was later nicknamed « Mtoto », which means « child » in Swahili.

During several months of careful excavation in the laboratories spectacular new discoveries have been made by CENIEH. « We started to expose parts of the skull and face, with the lower jaw articulated intact and with some uninterrupted teeth, » explains Professor María Martinón-Torres, Director at CENIEH. « The articulation of the spine and ribs was also amazingly preserved, even preserving the curvature of the thoracic cage, suggesting that this was an undisturbed burial and that the decomposition of the body took place right in the pit where the bones were were found. « 

Microscopic analysis of the bones and the surrounding soil confirmed that the body was quickly covered after burial and that decomposition occurred in the pit. In other words, Mtoto was deliberately buried shortly after death.

The researchers also suggested that Mtoto’s hunched body, lying on its right side with knees drawn to the chest, constitutes a tightly shrouded burial with deliberate preparation. More notably, Martinón-Torres notes, « the position and collapse of the head in the pit suggested that some perishable support such as a pillow might have been present, suggesting that the congregation may have been performing some form of funeral rite. » «  »

Luminescence dating makes Mtoto safe 78,000 years ago, making it the oldest known human burial in Africa. Later burials from Africa’s Stone Age also include young people – which may indicate special treatment for children’s bodies that ancient times.

The human remains were found at archaeological levels using stone tools from the African Mesolithic, a specific type of technology that has been claimed to be associated with more than one species of hominin.

« The association between the burial of this child and tools from the Mesolithic h at was a decisive factor in making Homo sapiens, unlike other hominin species, a definite manufacturer of these distinctive tool industries, « notes Ndiema.

Although the Panga ya Saidi find is the earliest evidence of deliberate burial in Africa, The burials of Neanderthals and modern humans in Eurasia go back as far as 120,000 years and include adults and a high proportion of children and adolescents. The reasons for the comparatively lack of early burials in Africa are still difficult to determine, possibly due to different burial practices or a lack of field work in large parts of the African continent.

« The burial of Panga ya Saidi shows that the inhumation of the dead is a cultural practice shared by Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, « notes Professor Michael Petraglia from the Max Planck Institute in Jena. « This find raises questions about the origin and evolution of funeral practices between two closely related human species and the extent to which our behaviors and emotions differ from one another. »

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