In May 2021, National Geographic reported an amazing find: a 78,000-year-old grave. While its mere age is astonishing enough, there’s another reason this gravesite is important. It’s the oldest known human burial in Africa, predating two other gravesites by at least 4,000 years.

This recent discovery isn’t the oldest Homo sapiens burial. The Qfzeh cave, located in Israel, holds several anatomically modern human remains. Their estimated ages are between 80,000 and 100,000 years old. But the newest African burial sheds a little more light on how – and why – our ancestors began deliberately burying their dead.

The Story of Mtoto

In the National Geographic piece, writer Jamie Shreeve explains that a research team discovered the ancient grave in southeastern Kenya. What they found was a pit in the ground containing a toddler’s remains. The research team nicknamed the child Mtoto, which means “child” in Swahili.

Shreeve describes Mtoto as being “buried with extraordinary care.” Nothing else was in the grave, but the research team concluded that the child rested on a pillow of organic material that has since decomposed. They looked at several factors to reach their conclusion:

  • The presence of a nearly complete skeleton
  • The bones’ position
  • Sediment composition within the pit

A Discovery Long in the Making

The research team stumbled on the pit in 2013; they also found decomposed bone there in 2017. But the pit was too fragile to excavate onsite. Instead, they encased the bones and soil in a plaster cast and took it to the National Museums of Kenya’s lab in Nairobi.

Once the museum realized how delicate the specimen was, they delivered it to the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany. Researchers at the Max Plank Institute painstakingly uncovered the skeleton and examined the bones. They also visually inspected and performed a geochemical analysis in the surrounding soil.  

Millenia of Human Settlement

The Kenyan National Museum and Max Planck Institute research team have been excavating at Panga ya Saidi, a cave system near Kenya’s eastern coast, since 2010. Located about 500 kilometers southeast of Nairobi, Panga ya Saidi holds a wealth of discoveries. Shreeve mentions that the research team has uncovered artifacts such as stone tools and shell beads plus slaughtered animal remains. The oldest artifacts reveal that humans first occupied the site around 80,000 years ago.

To understand the scale of time this discovery involves, let’s put Mtoto’s find into perspective. The oldest known Homo sapiens fossils are around 315,000 years old. These were discovered in Morocco in 2017, according to Nature editor Ewen Callaway. Sumerian cuneiform, the oldest form of human writing, was developed around 5,200 years ago.

The Importance of Human Burials

Writing for Science magazine, journalist Michael Price points out that many ancient gravesites hold children’s bodies. Deliberate interment protects a body from scavengers and the elements. This requires special effort and care – and we haven’t often seen this with older human remains.

So what do Mtoto’s grave and its condition tell us? The earliest modern humans were probably hunter-gatherers. They seemed to accept death as an inevitable part of life. Yet they felt greater sorrow for those who died young. Special care would be taken with children’s bodies – perhaps not just to preserve the corpse, but the memory of each child as well.

More Left To Discover

Modern humans are a blip in Earth’s overall history: We’ve only existed for about 300,000 years. There’s so much about our distant past that we don’t know. But each ancient grave we find fills in more of the gaps. Mtoto’s burial proves that our ancestors saw a child’s death as unusual and heartbreaking, as we do now.  It also proves that some human tendencies remain the same – no matter what else around us may change.

Category: Funeral


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