Human Toddler From 78,000 Years Ago Found Buried With Head on a Pillow in African Cave

A shrouded toddler was placed on its side, with its head on a pillow, in a shallow grave at the mouth of Panga ya Saidi Cave, Kenya

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Virtual ideal reconstruction of Mtoto’s position in the burial pit at Panga ya Saidi Cave, Kenya.
Virtual ideal reconstruction of Mtoto’s position in the burial pit at Panga ya Saidi Cave, Kenya.Credit: Jorge Gonzlez/Elena Santos
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

In a cave in Kenya that has been occupied for 78,000 years, and still is, archaeologists have discovered the oldest-known human burial in Africa.

The remains of a toddler had been carefully placed in a shallow grave, at the mouth of the Panga ya Saidi Cave, sheltered by the cave’s overhang, roughly at about the time humans moved into the cave. Which is about 1,076 square feet in area and has been lived in by Homo sapiens for 78,000 years. The child's burial is from about the start of that time, the archaeologists estimate.

The discovery and the complicated process of excavating the friable remains of the toddler, who died at about 2.5 to 3 years of age, was reported by an international team in Nature this week.

There are a number of indications that the child, dubbed “Mtoto” (Swahili for “child”), was deliberately buried, with a pillow under its head, no less.

Mtoto was lying on the right side in a flexed position, with the legs drawn to the chest in a shallow pit that had been excavated by the cave mouth for this purpose, the team posits.

Crucially to the interpretation of deliberate burial, the body was still articulated after all this time, meaning all the skeletal parts retained their anatomical connection, explains co-author Maria Martinón-Torres.

As for the pillow, the head seems to have dropped after the body's decomposition, indicating that the head had been resting on something that is now gone. There are also indications that the child had been wrapped in a shroud, possibly made of pelt.

Furthermore, microscopic analysis of the bones and soil around the body confirm that Mtoto’s remains were rapidly covered after burial, and that the body then decomposed right there in the pit, she adds.

In other words, Mtoto was intentionally buried shortly after death, the archaeologists conclude, in an early human funerary rite. One could have felt the child was sleeping, which may attest to the early human relationship with their physical and symbolic world.

One reason for dubiety as to the child’s species, before its teeth were found, was that it was in archaeological levels that also contained stone tools classified as “African Middle Stone Age,” which not only Homo sapiens was thought to have used but multiple hominin species.

Virtual reconstruction of the Panga ya Saidi hominin remains at the site (left) and ideal reconstruction of the child’s original position at the moment of finding (right).Credit: Jorge Gonzlez/Elena Santos

Baby teeth

The toddler’s grave was found 3 meters (nearly 10 feet) below the cave floor in 2013, but exposing the bones would take years: they were in terrible condition. Co-author Dr. Emmanuel Ndiema of the National Museums of Kenya explains that, initially, they didn’t know what they had found: “The bones were just too delicate to study in the field,” he explains.

“The bone was disintegrating as our trowels were trying to uncover it with our trowels,” another co-author, Prof. Michael Petraglia of Jena’s Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, told the press.

Unable to tease them out of the rock in situ without the bones returning to dust once and for all, the remains were stabilized and plastered in a cast. Then the whole block, with Mtoto’s body inside, was extracted for “excavation” in laboratory conditions.

As they began the lab work, they exposed two teeth, which provided the first indication that the deceased had been an early anatomically modern human. With a twist.

“Though Mtoto was a Homo sapiens, the child’s dental morphology – in contrast with that observed in human remains of the same period – preserves certain archaic traits connecting it to distant African ancestors,” the French CNRS Press observed. “This apparently confirms that, as has often been posited in recent years, our species has extremely old and regionally diverse roots in the African continent where it arose.”

Subsequent work at the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain – “We excavated the block by hand,” says Martinón-Torres, who is the center’s director – confirmed that the teeth belonged to a 2.5- to 3-year-old Homo sapiens child. They also used nonintrusive imaging techniques to "see" the body in the rock.

Ultimately, further excavation of that block in the lab uncovered part of Mtoto’s skull and mandible, including some unerupted teeth still in place, Martinón-Torres says. Even the spine is still articulated.

Mtoto's may be the earliest Homo sapiens burial found in Africa so far, but there are earlier ones beyond Africa. There is also far, far earlier evidence attesting to symbolism in early modern humans and possibly other hominins as well.

For instance, some 420,000 years ago, hominins of some sort living in Qesem Cave in Israel defeathered swan and eagle wings, archaeologists deduced. And why would they have bothered to do that? For some reason, they prized the dramatic feathers, latter-day researchers suspect.

In the Kalahari, in the oldest home in the world – Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa – archaeologists found a collection of crystals from 500,000 years ago that have no obvious function, and therefore are postulated to have served some sort of nonpractical purpose.

Both Wonderwerk and Panga ya Saidi have been occupied more or less throughout: the former for 2 million years and the latter for 78,000 years. They both still are, in some sense. To this day, Panga ya Saidi is used by the locals for ritual purposes, while Wonderwerk is associated by some locals with a snake spirit.

Not a necklace

External view of the Panga ya Saidi main block with the articulated partial skeleton (upper) and external view of the left side of Mtoto’s skull and mandible (below).Credit: Martinn-Torres, et al., 2021

In recent years, the paradigm of human evolution has changed. If once it was thought that Homo sapiens only left Africa 50,000 years ago, we now know that our species had been exiting Africa for around 200,000 years, because modern human remains from that time have been found in Israel and Greece (though the evidence remains controversial, with some arguing the remains can't be proven to be sapiens).

In any case, it seems that early sapiens exiters went extinct and today’s non-Africans all stem from an exit that did take place some 60,000 to 50,000 years ago.

Meanwhile, Israeli archaeologists have found early modern human burials around 100,000 years old that are also rich in symbolic potential.

In Qafzeh, a cave in Israel (also known as Kedumim Cave) just south of Nazareth, archaeologists have found 13 Stone Age burials: six adults and seven children still lying intact, from about 90,000 years ago. These include the grave of a teenage sapiens with an antler laid on the chest around 100,000 years ago. That surely smacks of mortuary ritual as one does not wear fallow deer headgear as a necklace. Archaeologists at Qafzeh also found one other interment with antlers, lumps of red ocher, and a collection of seashells in the cave, all taken as evidence of ritual

Even Neanderthals may have ritualistically buried their dead. The most striking example is late in their history, in the Iraqi cave of Shanidar, where one Neanderthal corpse may have been laid on a bed of flowers about 70,000 years ago. Another is a Neanderthal toddler interred 41,000 years ago in France, which also seems to have been deliberately buried.

“The Panga ya Saidi burial shows that inhumation of the dead is a cultural practice shared by Homo sapiens and Neanderthals,” said Petraglia. “This find opens up questions about the origin and evolution of mortuary practices between two closely related human species, and the degree to which our behaviors and emotions differ from one another.”

It is impossible at this stage to know whether the Neanderthals learned mortuary beliefs and techniques from humans they met, whether in Europe or the Middle East. Meet humans, they did. Or they might have developed funerary rituals independently. Perhaps the common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals buried its dead; perhaps respectful interment goes back even further.

We cannot know when in human evolution such beliefs arose, but clearly the development of symbolic thinking arose way before a group of humans took occupation of Panga ya Saidi and a young child died, and was buried with every evidence of respect and love.

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