About 78,000 years ago, deep in a cave in present-day Kenya, the body of a small child of about three years old was carefully placed in a grave. A few years ago, researchers found his remains. This represents the oldest deliberate burial of a modern human in Africa.
In 2017, the tiny tomb found at the bottom of the cave Saidi’s plan, north of Mombasa, was excavated for transport to Germany, to Lena, still embedded in its block of sediment. Led by paleoanthropologist Maria Martinón-Torres, Director of the National Center for Research on Human Evolution (CENIAH) in Burgos (Spain), the researchers knew that this block of material contained bones.
Months of complex scans, including the use of computed tomography (Micro-CT) to examine it with x-rays and create a detailed 3D model of its contents, ultimately revealed the skull and bones of a small Homo Sapiens. This little man, scientists named him “Mtoto”, which means “child” in Swahili.
A deliberate and very careful burial
According to the analyzes, the results of which are published in Nature, Mtoto would have been buried in the cave ago about 78,300 years, lying on his right side in a fetal position. His body was wrapped in a perishable material (a sort of shroud), as evidenced by strong compression of his upper body indicating a very tight envelope. Her head was also distinctly tilted, suggesting that she was placed on a headrest which has since also rotted.
In addition, researchers have isolated almost only bones from the upper body. The others have completely decomposed.
In their study, the team also points out that a pit surrounding the child’s body was indeed deliberately dug, showing that it was a real burial and not a simple “funeral caching” of a corpse in an available niche.
According to the authors, the burial of this body probably took place in the context of a elaborate funeral rite in which several individuals were able to take part.
The oldest Homo Sapiens tomb in Africa
Ancient burials of our ancestors have indeed already been found, but this one is a bit special. It is indeed oldest isolated in Africa to date according to anthropologist Michael Petraglia. Two other examples, one discovered in Taramsa, Egypt, the other in the Frontier cave, in South Africa, also appear to be very old, but they are not dated precisely enough to compete with Mtoto.
Finally, even if the discovery of this child seems to attest to burial practices in our species at that time, the authors stress that the absence of older evidence does not necessarily imply their non-existence. Homo Sapiens may have practiced this type of rites 90,000 or even 100,000 years ago.
This evidence may be missing or may not yet be identified. Michael Petraglia indeed points out that Paleolithic archeology is still relatively recent in Africa compared to Europe and Asia, although Africa is the home of our species.
This new discovery confirms in any case that our species had sufficient cognitive abilities to think about and put into practice this type of funeral approach at least 80,000 years ago.