A child died two to three years into their life in the coastal highlands of what is now Kenya 78,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence suggests that survivors wrapped the small body tightly before laying it, curled on one side with the tiny head resting on a pillow, in a carefully dug pit in Panga ya Saidi cave. The child’s grave is now the oldest known example of people in Middle Stone Age Africa burying their dead.
A child called Mtoto
A thesaurus is a handy thing, but sometimes seemingly tiny differences in meaning can actually have a huge impact. Consider the implications of “disposing of bodies” versus “laying the dead to rest.” One of the things archaeologists are most interested in about the lives of the earliest members of our species—and our close relatives, now extinct—is when and how we first began to make that distinction.
When did early humans stop viewing a dead human body as something smelly to be removed from the living area before it attracted scavengers and sickness? When did they decide it needed to be treated carefully to ensure safe passage to an afterlife—or perhaps give peace for the living?
Short of time travel, the best way archaeologists can figure out when people started believing in concepts like a spirit or an afterlife is to figure out when people started burying their dead with, as paleoanthropologist Louise Humphrey of the National History Museum of London puts it, “an investment of time and resources beyond what is strictly required to dispose or make use of the corpse.” That could mean placing the body carefully in a particular position, wrapping it in a shroud or supporting it with pillows, or even burying objects in the grave.
Mtoto is what archaeologists named the 78,000-year-old toddler’s skeleton recently unearthed at Panga ya Saidi Cave in Kenya (Mtoto is a Swahili word for child). And Mtoto clearly received that kind of tender attention from their community.
The remains were located by paleoanthropologist Maria Martinon-Torres, of Spain’s National Research Center on Human Evolution, and her colleagues. They found the small grave pit dug into several older layers of sediment in the cave, with the pit filled in with a mix of sediment scooped up from the cave floor. Inside, a few “fragile and degraded” pieces of bone were all that remained: the base of the skull and part of the lower jaw, part of the spine and ribs, and some fragments of arm and leg bones. The remains were so fragile that archaeologists had to wrap the whole burial pit in plaster and bring the plaster-wrapped chunk of sediment back to a lab at the Museum of Kenya to excavate under better conditions.
Mtoto lay on the right side, with the legs curled up to the chest. The child’s right collarbone and upper ribs had been turned and pressed inward, exactly the way archaeologists would expect if someone had wrapped the child’s upper body tightly, perhaps with a cloth or hide, before burial. Sometime after burial, the head and neck had collapsed downward, as if a support—maybe a cushion or a wooden block—had decayed away underneath it. And a few large shells mixed in with the grave soil may (or may not) have been funeral offerings.
When Martinon-Torres and her colleagues examined a few of Mtoto’s teeth—a mixture of deciduous, or baby, teeth and adult molars that hadn’t emerged from the jaw yet—they saw that the child was clearly a member of our species, Homo sapiens. And optically stimulated luminescence, a dating technique that measures when rock or sediment last saw sunlight, placed the grave soil at around 78,000 years old. That makes Mtoto the oldest human with a formal, deliberate grave in Africa.
Life and death in the Middle Stone Age
What does that actually tell us about the lives and beliefs of ancient people or the gradual emergence of the first human cultures? The Middle Stone Age was a period when what archaeologists think of as “modern human behavior” started taking the world by storm. It had been going on for about 200,000 years when Mtoto died, and it lasted for at least another 50,000 years. Modern human behavior, in this case, includes things like using symbols, creating art, and making jewelry, and people at several places in Africa were definitely doing those things long before Mtoto’s people grieved their loss.
In Europe and the Levant, archaeologists have found evidence that people—both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals—buried their dead in or near their living spaces as early as 120,000 years ago. That’s also what seems to have happened with Mtoto at Panga ya Saidi.
“Burial in residential localities, such as at Panga ya Saidi, has been suggested to reflect mourning behavior and the intention to keep the dead nearby,” wrote Martinon-Torres and her colleagues. Of course, that’s an informed guess; archaeologists can’t really know what ancient people were thinking. But it fits what we know about similar choices in several modern cultures.
But all of that—burials dating to 120,000 years ago in the Levant, combined with evidence of symbolic thinking and art much earlier than that in Africa—makes it seem a little surprising that the earliest actual burial in Africa is just 78,000 years old. After all, burial seems like such a key piece of evidence about ancient spiritual beliefs, and people clearly had laid the cultural groundwork for those beliefs long before Mtoto’s time.
The key may be that “laying the dead to rest” doesn’t always mean “digging a hole and filling it up with dirt afterward.” A quick look at modern cultures around the world reveals lots of different ideas about the proper way to lay the dead to rest, and each culture has its own reasons for what it does. Many of those funeral practices wouldn’t be likely to leave archaeological traces tens of thousands of years in the future.
Burial just happens to be one of the practices that’s most likely to leave remains mostly intact for archaeologists to find, and it’s also relatively easy to recognize a deliberate burial. But in tropical settings like coastal Kenya, buried bones don’t always last millennia; even what was left of Mtoto’s skeleton was in a “fragile and degraded” state, after all. It’s reasonably likely that for every burial like Mtoto’s, there are others that have long since vanished without a trace—lives, deaths, and afterlives forever beyond knowing.
“The absence of a behavior does not necessarily imply that the capacity for such behavior was lacking,” wrote Martinon-Torres and her colleagues.
There’s more than one way to hide a body
People in Africa evidently laid their dead to rest very deliberately, although in other ways, perhaps for hundreds of thousands of years before Mtoto’s burial—and possibly before Homo sapiens had technically come into being. Paleoanthropologists Lee Berger and John Hawks contend that Homo naledi carried their dead through the narrow tunnels into the darkness of Rising Star Cave in South Africa around 300,000 years ago. Archaeologists are still debating that claim, but if Berger and Hawks are correct, Rising Star is an example of a funerary cache—a place where people put their dead without necessarily digging a hole to bury them in. Sima de los Huesos cave in Spain may have served a similar purpose for other hominins there around 400,000 years ago.
The other two earliest human “burials” in Africa are a 68,000-year-old grave in Taramsa, Egypt, and a 58- to 74,000-year-old one at Border Cave, South Africa. But they’re also technically funerary caches rather than burials, according to the researchers. Regardless of the technicalities, at both sites, people clearly took time and effort to lay the remains to rest with care; the infant at Border Cave was even interred with a perforated shell, painted with ocher.
And that’s the really unsettling thing all three of Africa’s oldest human graves have in common: they all belong to young children. It suggests, wrote Martinon-Torres and her colleagues, that “Homo sapiens populations were intentionally preserving the corpses of young members of their groups between about 78,000 and 69,000 years ago.” In fact, if we look at every known Homo sapiens or Neanderthal burial from 120,000 years ago to the end of the Pleistocene, slightly more than half belong to children.
Children’s bones are smaller, more fragile, and less likely to survive millennia in the ground or the recesses of a cave than those of adults. That may tell us something about ancient demographics; it could point to a higher percentage of children in the population, a higher child mortality rate, or likely a combination of both.