As soon as archaeologist Nicole Boivin first arrived at the Panga ya Saidi dig site in Kenya, she knew the place was special. “To reach it you actually have to climb up through these dense forests from the coastal plain into this upland region. It was a hot and sweaty hike using a machete to cut through the forest but when we reached the top we found this incredible cave complex,” Boivin, director of archaeology at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, explains at a press briefing attended by The Independent.
While her team’s initial goals in this part of East Africa from 2008 had been to investigate the emergence of long-distance trade and connectivity in the continent across the Indian Ocean, the focus changed when archaeologists found this cave complex about 15km from the Kenyan coast, culminating in the discovery of the oldest known human burial in all of Africa.
“It is a cave system and parts of the roof of the caves have collapsed, and light, sunshine and vines are falling in. So there are lots of plants and flowers and wildlife,” says Boivin, a co-author of the study now published in the journal Nature.
Since excavations began in 2010 as part of a long-term partnership between researchers from the Max Planck Institute and the National Museums of Kenya, the caves have been a treasure trove for research into the origins of early humans.
Here in one of the caves, about three metres down, the researchers found what they describe as a shallow, circular pit that contained tightly clustered and highly decomposed bones.
Following months of excavation, requiring stabilisation and plastering of the samples, the archaeologists found evidence that a child was buried in this pit at the mouth of the cave 78,000 years ago – changing what is known about how Middle Stone Age populations in Africa interacted with the dead.
“At this point, we weren’t sure what we had found. The bones were just too delicate to study in the field. So we had a find that we were pretty excited about – but it would be a while before we understood its importance,” says Emmanuel Ndiema of the National Museums of Kenya.
After specialised treatment and analysis of two teeth exposed during further excavation that were brought to the National Research Centre on Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, Spain, the scientists were confident that the dental remains belonged to a human child aged between two-and-a-half and three years, who was later nicknamed “Mtoto”, Swahili for “child”.
Subsequent excavation and non-destructive analysis revealed the child’s skull and face, with an intact mandible and some unerupted teeth in place.
“The articulation of the spine and the ribs was also astonishingly preserved, even conserving the curvature of the thorax cage, suggesting that it was an undisturbed burial and that the decomposition of the body took place right in the pit where the bones were found,” says Professor María Martinón-Torres, director at CENIEH.
Now, after months of analysis of the surrounding soil and the decomposition that has taken place in the pit over the years, the archaeologists believe Mtoto was intentionally buried shortly after death.
They say his flexed body, found lying on the right side with knees drawn toward the chest, points to a tightly shrouded burial with deliberate preparation.
According to Martinon-Torres, “the position and collapse of the head in the pit suggested that a perishable support may have been present, such as a pillow, indicating that the community may have undertaken some form of funerary rite.”
With luminescence dating, a technique used to determine the age of minerals based on their years of sunlight exposure, the researchers estimated Mtoto’s age to be close to 78,000 years old, making it the oldest known human burial in Africa.
Although the Panga ya Saidi find represents the earliest evidence of intentional burial in Africa, the researchers said burials of Neanderthals and modern humans in Eurasia range back as far as 120,000 years and include adults and a high proportion of children and juveniles.
They believe the relative lack of early burials in Africa could be down to a bias in archaeological expeditions, historically more concentrated in Eurasia and other parts of the world, but it is also possible that it may be due to differences in mortuary practices among ancient humans.
Scientists believe that burial of the dead is a cultural practice that was likely shared by Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.
“This find opens up questions about the origin and evolution of mortuary practices between two closely related human species, and the degree to which our behaviours and emotions differ from one another,” says Professor Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany.
The origin of modern humans has been traced to at least 300,000 years ago in Africa, while this latest discovery dates the oldest burial on the continent to 78,000 years ago. That begs the next big question, the archaeologists say – why is there “such a big gap”?
“We don’t actually know if there are older burials in Africa yet. There is a bias in terms of our sampling of archaeological sites around the world. Archaeologists have been very busy in the near east and Europe for over 150 years with continuous excavations and so the number of burials known from Europe and the near east [is greater than] in Africa,” Petraglia tells The Independent.
He believes there is a lot of catch-up field work needed in large parts of the African continent.
“If the same amount of field work is carried out in Africa we might find more burials, of course, and older burials. Right now we know most of the older burials are outside of Africa. What we don’t know is whether that is a bias or not,” Petraglia adds.