Archaeologists Uncover Oldest Human Burial in Africa

Oldest burial found in Africa of a 3-year-old boy (Source: Nature)

Archaeologists have uncovered the oldest human burial in Africa. It is the body of a 3-year-old boy who was buried 80,000 years ago. As always, it is good to note that even though Africa is the cradle of the human species, very little research has been conducted on the continent showing a real bias in research, but also highlighting the need for Africans to do their own studies: there is so much to find! There is so much wealth (in every field)! Excerpts below is from an article on the Guardian. Please check out the original article in Nature, and also the press release on the New York Times website.

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‘Quite spectacular’ discovery shows three-year-old child was carefully laid to rest nearly 80,000 years ago

Archaeologists have identified the oldest known human burial in Africa during field work that uncovered the remains of a child laid carefully to rest in a grave nearly 80,000 years ago.

The arrangement of the bones shows the three-year-old – named Mtoto after the Swahili word for child – was placed with legs tucked to chest, and perhaps wrapped in a shroud with their head on a pillow, before being gently covered in soil.

Researchers discovered the delicate and degraded bones while excavating the floor beneath a sheltered overhang at the mouth of the Panga ya Saidi cave in the tropical uplands of Kenya’s coastal plain about 10 miles from the shore.

This is quite spectacular,” said Michael Petraglia, a professor of human evolution and prehistory at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. “It is the oldest human burial in Africa. It tells us something about our cognition, our sociality and our behaviours and they are all very familiar to us today.”

Overview of the cave of Panga ya Saidi. The boarded excavation on the right marks the locality where the burial was recovered. (photo by Mohammad Javad Shoaee).

… The team unearthed the edge of the grave and the first pieces of bone in 2013, but the fragments were so fragile they turned to dust when the scientists tried to remove them. Over the next four years, the researchers excavated the grave from above, revealing yet more bone, but even after applying resins to the material, it was still too weak to recover.

The researchers decided to dig around the circular pit, roughly 40 cm wide and 13 cm deep, and encase the whole grave in plaster so it could safely be lifted from the ground. The block was taken to the National Museum in Nairobi and on to a specialist lab in Spain where the material was excavated further and then imaged with 3D X-ray equipment.

Two small teeth found in the grave matched those of Homo sapiens and put the age of the child at two and a half to three years old. Further teeth were still embedded in the child’s lower jaw, discovered with the spine, ribs and other bones from the shoulder and limbs. Stone tools for scraping, boring and engraving were found in and around the grave, alongside stone points that may have been hafted on to wooden shafts to make spears.

The images show that the child was laid on their right side with knees tucked up towards the chest, while the position of the skull suggests that it lay on a headrest or pillow. The articulated bones, such as the spine, had not fallen apart in the grave, leading the researchers to suspect the body was wrapped tightly in a shroud before burial. Dating found the bones to be about 78,000 years old, according to the study published in Nature.

… “Early African burials are especially rare despite the fact that Africa is the birthplace of our species,” said Boivin. “This almost certainly reflects biases in where research has been done – the regions where earlier burials have been found have been much more extensively researched than Africa.

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