Human burial from 78,000 years ago in Africa

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Virtual reconstruction of Mtoto’s position in the burial pit. Image: JorgeVirtual reconstruction of Mtoto’s position in the burial pit. Image: Jorge González/Elena Santos.

Àfrica Pitarch, Beatriu de Pinós researcher in the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar of the UB (SERP-UB) 000 years ago. Researchers found remains of a child aged between 2.5 and 3, in a shallow grave in the site of Panga ya Saidi (Kenya). This burial joins other evidence of the first social complex behaviour seen in Homo Sapiens.

Despite being home to the earliest signs of modern human behaviour, burials in Africa are very scarce and even ambiguous sometimes. Therefore, there is not much information on the origins and the development of burial practices in the continent where our species was born. Now, the remains of a child buried in the cave of Panga ya Saidi (Kenya) from 78,000 years ago reveals how populations in the Middle Stone Age interacted with the dead.

Panga ya Saidi has been a key site for human origins research since the excavations began in 2010 as part of a long-term collaboration between the archaeologists of the Max Plank Institute for Science of Human History (MPI-SHH, Jena, Germany) and the National Museums of Kenya (NMK, Nairobi). "The site of Panga ya Saidi is key in the African eastern coasts, with an extraordinary record of 78,000 years of cultural, technological and symbolic activities", notes Nicole Boivin, principal researcher of the project and director of MPI-SHH.

The first remains of the bones of this discovery were found during the excavations in 2013, but it was not until 2017 that the small pit where the bones remained was fully discovered. The circular pit, about three meters below the floor, had a set of tightly clustered bones in a poor state, which required stabilisation and plastering tasks in the field.

Human remains discovered in the laboratory

Once plastered with bandages, the remains were brought to the National Museum of Nairobi and later, to the laboratories in the National Research Centre on Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, to be analysed and conduct a specialized treatment. The researchers could state, after the analysis of two teeth, that the remains belonged to a 2.5-3-year-old child, who was later nicknamed ’Mtoto’ -meaning "child" in Swahili.

A microscope analysis of the bones and the surrounding soil indicated that the body had been rapidly covered after being buried and that decomposition took place in the pit: Mtoto was intentionally buried after death.

The researchers suggest the flexed body, found lying in the right side, with the knees drawn towards the chest, would have been wrapped with a plant tissue or another perishable material. "The inclination and detachment of the skull and the first three cervical vertebrae indicate the existence of a void space under the head, which suggests the collapse due to decomposition of a perishable support. These elements point to a complex ritual, which would likely involve the participation of several members of the community", notes María Martinón-Torres, first author of the study and director of CENIEH.

Study of sediments and remains

Àfrica Pitarch started working in the site of Panga ya Saidi in 2015. She studied the remains of coloured materials (ochre) found during the stratigraphic sequencing. When the child remains appeared, the whole team focused on their study. In my case, together with researchers from the University of Bordeaux and CENIEH, we analysed the covering materials", she says. The researcher notes that "what we wanted to know was whether that was a burial or not, and if so, whether the ochre remains found near the skeleton could be related to some type of mortuary practice". The analysis of the sediment confirmed that "it was an intentionally dug grave in the floor, while the study of the ochre fragments pointed out that those would have a natural origin and would not have been used during the burial of the body".

Burials in modern humans and Neandertals

Luminescence dating places Mtoto at 78,000 years ago, which makes it the oldest human burial found in Africa. Later burials in Africa during the African Stone Age include young individuals and show a special treatment for children’s bodies in this ancient period.

Human remains were found in archaeological levels with stone tools typical of the Middle Stone Age, a type of technology that has been argued to be linked to more than one hominin species. "The association between the burial and the lithic industry of the Middle Stone Age played a basic role when proving the manufacturer of these stone tools was the Homo Sapiens", notes Emmanuel Ndiema, from NMK.

Although the discovery in Panga ya Saidi represents the oldest evidence of a burial in Africa to date, burials of Neandertals and modern humans in Eurasia range back as far as 120,000 years and include adults and a high proportion of children and juveniles and adults. Reasons for the lack of early burials in Africa compared to Eurasia are not clear, perhaps due to the differences in mortuary practices or the lack of comprehensive field work in other regions in Africa.

"The burial in Panga ya Saidi shows inhumation of the dead is a shared practice between the Homo Sapiens and Neandertals", reveals Michael Petraglia, from MPI-SHH. "These findings present new questions on the origins and evolution of the culture of death in two human species that are closely related".

Excavations in Panga ya Saidi are jointly led by the MPI-HHS (Jena, Germany) and the NMK (Nairobi, Africa). The conservation and he analysis of the skeleton remains of Panga ya Saidi were led by CENIEH (Burgos, Spain). The international consortium of scientists includes members of organizations and universities of Kenya, Germany, Spain, France, Australia, Canada, South Africa, United Kingdom and the United States.

This information was carried out using Max Plank Institute’s press release.

María Martinón-Torres, Francesco d’Errico, Elena Santos, Ana Álvaro Gallo, Noel Amano, William Archer, Simon J. Armitage, Juan Luis Arsuaga, José María Bermúdez de Castro, James Blinkhorn, Alison Crowther, Katerina Douka, Stéphan Dubernet, Patrick Faulkner, Pilar Fernández-Colón, Nikos Kourampas, Jorge González García, David Larreina, François-Xavier Le Bourdonnec, George MacLeod, Laura Martín-Francés, Diyendo Massilani, Julio Mercader, Jennifer M. Miller, Emmanuel Ndiema, Belén Notario, Africa Pitarch Martí, Mary E. Prendergast, Alain Queffelec, Solange Rigaud, Patrick Roberts, Mohammad Javad Shoaee, Ceri Shipton, Ian Simpson, Nicole Boivin et Michael D. Petraglia. "Earliest human burial in Africa". Nature, May 5, 2021. DOI : 10.1038/s41586-021-03457-8.

The online presentation of a documentary on the research in Panga ya Saidi by the Franco-Catalan team will take place on Friday, May 7.