Despite the fact that Africa is considered the cradle of biological and cultural modernity, the first evidences of burials on this continent they are rare and often ambiguous. The origin and development of mortuary practices in Africa, it remains a mystery.
Successive seasons of excavation at Panga ya Saidi place it as a key site on the East African coast, with an extraordinary 78,000-year record of cultural, technological and symbolic activities.
A new study, which is featured today in the journal Nature, provides new data on how Middle Stone Age populations interacted with the dead. Scientists at the National Center for Research on Human Evolution (CENIEH), the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH, Jena, Germany) and the National Museums of Kenya (MNK, Nairobi), thus detail the burial oldest human in Africa of a boy about three years old, buried at the entrance of the cave of Panga ya Saidi (Kenya), 78,000 years ago, and that it belonged to our species.
Since the excavations began in 2010, this site has been a fundamental enclave to investigate the source of our species. “As soon as we visited Panga ya Saidi for the first time, we knew it was special,” he says. Nicole boivin, Principal Investigator of the original research project and Director of the Department of Archeology at MPI-SHH.
“The site is truly unique. The successive seasons of excavation at Panga ya Saidi place it as a key site on the East African coast, with an extraordinary record of 78,000 years of cultural, technological and symbolic activities ”, continues the researcher.
The first bone fragments were found in 2013, but it was not until the 2017 excavation that the cavity in which the body was found was completely exposed. It was a circular opening located about three meters below the current floor of the cave, filled with sediment and an accumulation of brittle bones and very degraded. Given its delicacy, the block was stabilized and plastered in the field.
“At the time, we weren’t sure what we had found. The bones were too delicate to study in situ, “he says. Emmanuel Ndiema, from the National Museums of Kenya. “We were excited about the find, but it would be a while before we understood its importance,” he adds.
The human remains of Mtoto discovered in the CENIEH
Once plastered, the block was transported first to Nairobi and then to Burgos, for its excavation and specialized analysis in the CENIEH’s Conservation and Restoration, Archaeometry, Digital Cartography and 3D Analysis, and Computerized Microscopy and Microtomography laboratories.
After being deposited in the cavity, the body had been quickly covered with earth, thus protecting it from deterioration and disarticulation.
Two teeth, visible on the surface during the initial laboratory excavation of the sediment block at NMK, led researchers to suspect that the remains could be humans. The work, carried out by the CENIEH Dental Anthropology Group, 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 meticulous excavation at the CENIEH Conservation and Restoration Laboratory, new discoveries were made. “We began to uncover parts of the skull and face, with the jaw joint intact and some teeth whose roots had not yet formed,” explains the paleoanthropologist. Maria Martinón-Torres, director of CENIEH.
“The articulation of the spine and the ribs the curvature of the rib cage was also preserved, and even maintained. All this suggested that it was a deliberate burial and that the decomposition of the body had occurred in the same cavity in which the bones had been found ”, says the expert.
Microscopic analysis of the bones and the surrounding soil confirmed that, after being deposited in the cavity, the body had been quickly covered with soil, thus protecting it from deterioration and disarticulation. Mtoto was in a flexed position, with his knees up to his chest, lying on his right side. The taphonomic evidence points to the use of a shroud or mortise or burial in densely packed earth.
Even more important, as Martinón-Torres points out, is that “the position and rotation of the head suggests the use of a perishable support, as a pillow, which indicates that the community could have been involved in some type of funeral rite”.
Burials in modern humans and Neanderthals
Luminescence dating places Mtoto at 78,000 years old, making it the oldest known human burial in Africa to date. Later Stone Age burials in Africa also include young people, suggesting a special treatment of children’s bodies in this period of prehistory.
Funerary evidence for Neanderthals and modern humans in Eurasia is older – dating back to 120,000 years – and includes adults and a significant proportion of children and youth.
Human remains were found at archaeological levels with stone tools from the Middle African Stone Age, a type of technology that had potentially been linked to several hominin species. “The association between the burial of this child and the tools of the Middle Stone Age has played a crucial role in proving that Homo sapiens was, without a doubt, the manufacturer of this industry,” says Ndiema.
Although the discovery of Panga ya Saidi represents the oldest evidence of intentional burial in Africa, burial evidence from neanderthals Y modern humans in Eurasia they are older – they date back 120,000 years – and include adults and a significant proportion of children and young people.
The reason for the lack of burials with equivalent chronologies in Africa remains a mystery and could reflect differences in mortuary practices between continents or the need for more exhaustive field work in some regions 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 ”, he says. Michael Petraglia, of the MPI-SHH. “This finding raises new questions about the origin and evolution of the culture of death in two closely related human species, and to what extent our behavior and emotions were different,” he concludes.
María Martinón-Torres et al. “Earliest Known Human Burial in Africa” Nature