A toddler laid to rest with their head on a pillow in a cave in eastern Kenya is thought to be the oldest human burial ever found in Africa.
The remains of the child, who was between 2 ½ and 3 years old, date back 78,000 years and were found buried at the mouth of the Panga ya Saidi cave, according to new research published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Analysis of the cave sediment and the bones suggested that the burial was intentional and perhaps involved the child’s wider community in funeral rites, the authors of the study said, demonstrating that humans at that time were capable of symbolic thought and complex social behavior.
The arrangement of the surviving bone fragments showed that the child was placed lying gently on their right side, with their legs folded and drawn up toward their chest. The researchers also believe that the tiny body was tightly wrapped in a shroud – perhaps leaves or animal skins – and the head was supported by something made from a perishable material, possibly a pillow.
“This type of movement of the head is usually found in those burials where the head is resting over a pillow or perishable support – the moment that support disappears, disintegrates, decays, it creates a space below the head and because of gravity the head tilts,” said study author María Martinón-Torres, director at the National Research Center on Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, Spain.
“We could infer this child… was really put there in a specific position with a pillow under his head. This respect, this care, this tenderness – putting a child lying in an almost a sleeping position: I really think it’s one of most important – the earliest evidence in Africa – of humans living in the physical and the symbolic world,” Martinón-Torres said in a news briefing.
The importance of the find
While older burials by Neanderthals, archaic humans who disappeared around 40,000 years ago, and early Homo sapiens have been found in Europe and the Middle East dating back 120,000 years, the child’s skeleton represents the earliest evidence of intentional burial in Africa.
It’s not known why fewer burials have been found on the continent. It could be due to lack of fieldwork or differences in early mortuary practices, which can be hard to detect.
“Archaeologists have been very busy in the Near East and Europe for 150 years, with continuous excavations. If the same amount of work happened in Africa, we might find more and older burials,” said Michael Petraglia, coauthor of the study and a professor at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
Some of child’s bones were first found during excavations at Panga ya Saidi in 2013, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the skeleton of the child, who was later nicknamed “Mtoto,” meaning “child” in Swahili, was fully exposed.
“At this point, we weren’t sure what we had found. The bones were just too delicate to study in the field,” said study co-author Emmanuel Ndiema of the National Museums of Kenya. “We had a find that we were pretty excited about – but it would be a while before we understood its importance.”
‘Contentious area’ in archaeology
Louise Humphrey, a researcher in human origins at the Centre for Human Evolution Research at the Natural History Museum in London, said that inferring signs of symbolic behavior from burials was a “contentious area” in archaeology, but she agreed the study revealed that “care and effort” had been invested in the child’s burial.
“Such actions include careful placement of the corpse in the grave to achieve a desired body position or orientation, the wrapping or binding of the body for reasons other than to aid transportation, or the deliberate incorporation of items of value in the grave,” Humphrey said in an article that accompanied the study. She wasn’t involved in the research.
“Understanding the treatment of the dead intersects with our understanding of social organization, symbolic behaviors and the use of landscape, resources and technology.”
The researchers were able to deduce in a number of ways that the child’s body didn’t end up in the cave floor by happenstance.
Excavating in the cave revealed that the grave was dug with sediment of different color and texture that could have only been a result of “intentional digging.” The microscopic features of the bones, and the chemical composition of the soil that surrounded the bones, suggested that the body was “fresh” when it was buried and decomposed in the grave.