The skeleton of Mtoto -translation of child in the Swahili language- is part of the oldest human burial in Africa. From his remains it is deduced that he is between 2.5 and 3 years old and his grave dates back to more than 78,000 years ago. This finding at the Panga ya Saidi cave site on the tropical coast of the Kenyan highlands, led by a group of Spanish scientists and published Wednesday in the journal Nature, constitutes an important advance in the evidence for early complex human behavior and helps to clarify the mystery of when and how our species’ mortuary practices began.
The skeleton was found in a “flexed position”, according to the study, and corresponds to our species, Homo sapiens. In this sense, the finding is very revealing: although Africa is considered to be the cradle of modern humans, there is no solid evidence of burials in the vast continent, and the information that is available is ambiguous. That is why Mtoto’s body sheds light on how Middle Stone Age (or MSA) populations carried out mortuary rites and practices and interacted with their dead.
“Funerary practices are evidence that human beings live in the physical world and in the symbolic world,” reflects María Martinón-Torres, director of the National Center for Research on Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, who has led the research.
This research has a long history. The first bone fragments were found in 2013, but it was not until the 2017 excavation when the cavity in which the body was found was completely exposed, as explained by the CNIEH. This cavity, circular in shape, was located about three meters below the current floor of the cave, and was found to be filled with sediment and an accumulation of fragile and very degraded bones. As a consequence of this delicacy, the entire block was plastered.
Once protected by the plaster, the block traveled first to the Kenyan capital (Nairobi) and, later, to Burgos, to CENIEH, where an analysis of these remains was carried out. Two teeth gave the clue as to the age of the first known buried person, which was later confirmed: they belonged to a human child between 2.5 and 3 years old, nicknamed Mtoto.
In Burgos “parts of the skull and face began to be outlined,” explains Martinón-Torres, “with the intact articulation of the jaw and some teeth whose root had not yet formed,” adds the paleontologist in a statement. The scientist adds that “the articulation of the spine and ribs was also preserved, and even the curvature of the rib cage was maintained,” says the director of the CNIEH. “All this pointed to the fact 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,” she explains about this discovery.
From the microscopic analysis of the bones and the soil it is clear that the body of Mtoto, after being deposited, was quickly covered with soil and, in addition, the analysis of the remains of the little boy of only 3 years of age also point to the use of a shroud or shroud or a burial in a densely packed earth, as revealed by this study, which has occupied the cover of Nature on Wednesday.
Despite the importance of this finding, the reason for the lack of burials of equivalent dates on the African continent remains a mystery and could reflect the existence of different mortuary practices between continents or evidence of the need for more extensive fieldwork. Nevertheless, this research raises new questions and already constitutes a very relevant paleontological advance.