The oldest human burial discovered in Africa – Explica .co
Although Africa is considered the cradle of biological and cultural modernity, the earliest evidence of burials on this continent, they are rare and often ambiguous. The origin and development of mortuary practices in Africa, it remains a mystery.
The successive seasons of excavation at Panga ya Saidi make it a key site on the East African coast, with an extraordinary record of 78,000 years 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 from 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 Africa’s oldest man of a boy aged about three, buried at the entrance to the cave of Panga ya Saidi (Kenya), 78,000 years ago, and that it belonged to our species.
Since excavations began in 2010, this site has been a fundamental enclave for investigating 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 archeology department of MPI-SHH.
“The site is truly unique. The successive seasons of excavations at Panga ya Saidi make it a must-see 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 wasn’t until the 2017 excavations that the cavity in which the body was found was fully exposed. It was a circular opening located about three meters below the present 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 on the ground.
“At the time, we didn’t really know what we had found. The bones were too delicate to be studied in situ, ”he says. Emmanuel Ndiema, National Museums of Kenya. “We were excited about the discovery, but it would take some time before we understood its importance,” he adds.
Mtoto’s human remains discovered at CENIEH
Once plastered, the block was transported first to Nairobi and then to Burgos, for its excavations and specialized analyzes in conservation and restoration, archeometry, digital mapping and 3D analysis, and microscopy and computerized microtomography.
After being deposited in the cavity, the body was quickly covered with soil, thus protecting it from deterioration and disarticulation.
Of them 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 human. The work, carried out by the dental anthropology group of CENIEH, confirmed that the teeth belonged to a human child aged 2.5 to 3 years, later dubbed Mtoto, which means “child” in Swahili.
During several months of painstaking excavations at CENIEH’s conservation and restoration laboratory, new discoveries were made. “We started to discover 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, ”explains the expert.
Microscopic analysis of the bones and surrounding soil confirmed that after being deposited in the cavity, the body was quickly covered with soil, thus protecting it from deterioration and disarticulation. Mtoto was in a bent position, knees against his chest, lying on his right side. Taphonomic evidence points to the use of a to wrap up or mortise or burial in densely packed earth.
More importantly, as Martinón-Torres points out, “the position and rotation of the head suggests the use of a perishable support, as a pillow, indicating 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 special treatment of children’s bodies in this prehistoric period.
Funeral evidence for Neanderthals and modern humans in Eurasia is older – going back 120,000 years – and includes adults and a significant proportion of children and youth.
Human remains have been found at archaeological levels with stone tools from the Stone Age of Central Africa, a type of technology potentially linked to several species of hominids. “The association between the burial of this child and medieval stone tools played a crucial role in showing that Homo sapiens was undoubtedly the maker of this industry,” explains Ndiema.
Although the discovery of Panga ya Saidi represents the oldest evidence of intentional burial in Africa, the evidence of burial of Neanderthals Yes modern humans in Eurasia, they are older – 120,000 years ago – 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 fieldwork in certain regions of the African continent.
“The burial of Panga ya Saidi shows that the burial of the dead is a cultural practice shared by Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, ”he says. Michael petraglia, MPI-SHH. “This discovery raises new questions about the origin and evolution of the culture of death in two closely related human species, and how different our behavior and emotions were,” he concludes.
María Martinón-Torres et al. “First known human burial in Africa” Nature