A new study, appearing in Nature on May 5, reports the oldest known modern human burial in Africa. The 2.5 to 3 year old child was buried in a stooped position in a shallow grave directly under the protective rock overhang at the entrance to the cave. The burial in Panga ya Saidi joins the growing number of references to early complex social behavior Homo sapiens .
Although the earliest evidence of modern human behavior was found on the continent, evidence of early burial in Africa is very rare and often inconclusive. As a result, little is known about the origin and development of burial practices on the continent on which our species arose. A child who was buried at the entrance to Panga ya Saidi cave 78,000 years ago is changing that and we are learning more about how the people of the African Middle Stone Age treated their dead.
Since the excavations began in 2010 as part of a long-term partnership between archaeologists from the Max Planck Institute for Human History in Jena and the National Museums of Kenya (Nairobi), the Panga ya Saidi cave near the Kenyan coast has been an important place for research into the human origins.
“When we visited Panga ya Saidi for the first time, we knew straight away that this site was something very special,” says Professor Nicole Boivin, head of the project and director of the Department of Archeology at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Man in Jena. “The site is truly unique. Repeated excavations at Panga ya Saidi have now helped establish it as a key site for the East African coast, with an exceptional 78,000-year archaeological record of early human cultural, technological and symbolic activity. “
External view of the Panga ya Saidi main block with the articulated partial skeleton (above) and external view of the left side of Mtoto’s skull and lower jaw (below)
Credit: Martinón-Torres, et al., 2021
Parts of the child’s bones were first discovered during excavations in Panga ya Saidi in 2013, but it was not until 2017 that the small pit containing the bones was fully exposed. About three meters below the current floor of the cave, the shallow, circular pit contained tightly packed, severely decomposed bones that had to be stabilized on site and coated with plaster of paris.
“At that point, we weren’t sure what we’d found. And the bones were just too delicate to examine in the field,” explains Dr. Emmanuel Ndiema of the National Museums of Kenya. “So we had a find that we found pretty exciting – but it was still a while before we could decipher its full meaning.”
Excavation in the laboratory shows: bones come from a child
After securing the bones against further damage, the sediment block with the remains were first taken to the National Museums in Nairobi and later to the laboratories of the National Research Center for Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, Spain, for further excavation, special treatment and analysis.
Two teeth, which were uncovered in the laboratory at the beginning of the excavation, led the scientists to suspect that they could be human remains. 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.
After months of meticulous work in the CENIEH laboratories, spectacular new discoveries were made. “We began to expose parts of the skull and face, including the lower jaw with some uninterrupted teeth and the connection to the upper jaw,” says Professor María Martinón-Torres, Director at CENIEH. “Also the connection between the spine and some ribs, yes even the curvature of the rib cage was miraculously preserved. All of this indicates that the body was buried intact and that the putrefaction took place right in the pit where the bones were found. “
Virtual reconstruction of the hominin remains of Panga ya Saidi at the place of discovery (left) and ideal reconstruction of the original position of the child at the time of discovery (right)
Credit: Jorge González / Elena Santos
Microscopic analysis of the bones and the surrounding soil confirmed that the body was covered with earth immediately after burial and that it was decaying in the pit. In other words, Mtoto was intentionally buried shortly after death.
Since Mtoto’s body was found lying on its right side and with the knees drawn to the chest, the research team also assumes that the burial was consciously prepared and that the body was tightly wrapped for it. Martinón-Torres adds: “What is even more remarkable is that the position of the head in the pit suggests that ephemeral support may have been present, such as a pillow. This suggests that the community may have performed some form of funeral rite. “
Burials of modern humans and Neanderthals
Luminescence dating of Mtoto’s burial is certain to be 78,000 years old. This makes it the oldest known human burial in Africa. Later burials from Stone Age Africa also contain young individuals – perhaps indicative of special treatment for children’s bodies at the time.
The human remains were found in archaeological layers that also contained stone tools attributed to the African Middle Stone Age, a very distinctive technology that has been claimed to have been used by more than one hominin species.
“The connection between this child’s burial and the tools of the Middle Stone Age was instrumental in demonstrating that Homo sapiens , unlike other species of hominins, undoubtedly used this distinctive technology,” explains Ndiema.
Although the discovery of Panga ya Saidi is the earliest evidence of deliberate burial in Africa, burials of Neanderthals and modern humans in Eurasia date back to 120,000 years and include adults and a high proportion of children and adolescents. The reasons for the comparative lack of early burials in Africa remain a mystery, possibly due to differences in burial practices or the lack of field research in large parts of the African continent.
“The burial of Panga ya Saidi shows that the burial of the dead is a cultural practice that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals have in common,” says Professor Michael Petraglia from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Man in Jena. “This find raises questions about the origin and evolution of burial practices between two closely related human species, and how our behaviors and emotions differ from one another.”
Contacts and sources:
Professor Michael Petraglia
Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
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