Earliest human burial in Africa discovered
May 5, 2021 - Archaeologists have found the remains of a child buried at a cave in Kenya 78,000 years ago, which provide new insights into the origin of mortuary practices on the continent of our species’ birth.
A new study by an international team of researchers, and published in the prestigious journal Nature, details the remains of a 2.5 to 3-year-old Homo sapiens nicknamed Mtoto – “child” in Swahili – found in a flexed position, deliberately buried in a cave at Panga ya Saidi, Kenya.
Despite being called the cradle of humankind, early evidence of burials in Africa are scarce and often ambiguous. Burials of Neanderthals and modern humans in Eurasia ranging back 120,000 years, are far more abundant. The reasons for the comparative lack of early burials in Africa remain elusive, perhaps owing to the lack of field work in large parts of the African continent.
Portions of the child's skeleton were first 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. Over several months of painstaking excavation, spectacular new discoveries were made.
Mtoto’s flexed body, lying on its right side with knees drawn toward the chest, testifies to deliberate preparation.
The position of the head suggests a support – such as a pillow – may have been present, indicating some form of funerary rite.
Also, microscopic analysis of the bones and surrounding soil confirms that the body was rapidly covered by sediment scooped up from cave floor, and decomposed in situ. In other words, Mtoto was intentionally buried shortly after death.