A artists interpretation of the burial, which indicates that the child was placed in the grave carefully, with their legs drawn up and head places on a headrest  ©Fernando Fueyo

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Oldest human burial in Africa has been discovered in a cave in Kenya

The discovery of the burial of a small child in a cave in Kenya is providing new insights into the development of funerary practices of modern humans.

Dating to roughly 78,000 years old, the grave is the oldest human burial discovered in Africa to date. 

When and where modern humans first started displaying behaviours that we see as central to our own sense of identity has been long debated.

A lot of these aspects, such as language and belief systems, leave little to no archaeological evidence. But the treatment of the dead does leave some tantalising clues as to the behaviours of our early ancestors.

The ancient burial of a child, thought to have been about three years old at the age of death, has been found in a coastal cave in Kenya. The individual was buried in a purposely dug hole, and the body was placed with legs drawn up to the chest. It is also thought that the head may have been laying on a head rest, which no longer survives.

The grave dates to roughly 78,000 years old, making it the oldest human burial discovered in Africa to date. This was during a period known as the Middle Stone Age, when it is thought that many of the more complex aspects of modern human behaviour first appeared.

Dr Louise Humphrey is a researcher of human origins at the Museum, but was not involved in the study.

'What counts as symbolism, and whether is it archaeologically visible is quite complicated,' explains Louise. 'This burial might be symbolic, and it certainly goes beyond the purely perfunctory. They have obviously taken care to arrange the body in the grave, including putting in a head rest.

'I think there is a personal manifestation of loss.'

The study was led by researchers at the National Research Center on Human Evolution, Burgos, Spain, in close association with colleagues at the National Museums of Kenya, and has been published in the journal Nature. 

A view of the cave showing a partially open-air section with green vegetation in the middle surrounded by tall, overhanding cliffs.

The cave in which the burial was found at Panga ya Saidi shows evidence that it was lived in by modern humans for a long period of time, both before and after the burial of the child ©Mohammad Javad Shoaee

Looking after the dead

The researchers have used a technique known as luminescence dating to determine the age of the archaeological layers containing the burial. By looking at the position of the surviving bones, they were also able to infer that the child was placed resting on their side with the head supported by a head rest, and that part of the body had been wrapped tightly in some form of material.

'I think we can assume that whoever buried this child must have experienced a sense of loss,' explains Louise. 'I don't think we can understand what they were thinking, but there was definitely a level of care involved in positioning the body in the grave.'

Archaeological evidence reveals that earlier humans, including other human species such as Neanderthals, disposed of and probably cared for their dead in many different ways.

'There were also other mortuary behaviours going on in parallel,' says Louise. 'So international burial can be regarded as just one facet of a range of relatively more complex behaviours that reflect the way in which people treat their dead.'

The location of the burial is also interesting. Louise suggests that the fact that it was a child who was buried in a cave where people had been, and possibly still were, living could hint at a deeper connection.  

A virtual reconstruction of the burial, showing the skull and bones positioned in the dark brown soil.

The positioning of bones of the child, called Mtoto, suggests that the body was wrapped up in material when it was placed in the grave ©Jorge González/Elena Santos

'It is possible that because this was a space in which these people were living that there may have been a feeling, particularly with the loss of a child, that they wanted to keep it near to them,' says Louise. 'It is quite interesting that the two earliest burials discovered in Africa are both young children.

'It is possible that there was a different sense of loss following the death of a child and perhaps they were buried in the cave because they wanted to keep them nearby.'

Oldest modern human burials

There are still questions about the significance of burials to the development of our species.

A burial describes a funerary practice in which a space is deliberately created, usually by digging a hole, and the body placed within before being covered by sediment. But there is something of a grey area when it comes to a behaviour known as funerary caching.

This is where natural holes, caves or crevices are taken advantage of and bodies are placed within. There are numerous examples where human remains, both from our own species and from more ancient ones, have been found deep within caves. In some cases, there are ongoing debates about whether these were placed there intentionally after death or had washed in at a later date.

It has traditionally been thought that this funerary caching behaviour was something of a precursor to burying the dead, although Louise is not totally convinced it is always linear.

'I don't necessarily believe that deliberate burials are more meaningful than caching,' explains Louise. 'It could be argued that humans only needed to create artificial spaces for burials if there was not a suitable natural alternative nearby.'

But burials are important evidence for archaeologists because the recognition of a burial pit reveals that the behaviour was planned and intentional.  

Items that are placed in a grave or other evidence from the burial such as the position of the body may convey information about the person who died, such as their social role in the community or about the beliefs of the people who buried them. 

A view looking down into the excavation pit that contained the burial. The walls are supported by wood structures and four people can be seen digging at the bottom of the hole.

The discovery of this burial will hopefully spur other researchers on to start looking for more, and potentially older, burials on the African continent ©Mohammad Javad Shoaee

It can difficult to demonstrate that a particular set of remains uncovered were deliberately buried in the first place. This is because it requires the unambiguous evidence that a hole has been dug and backfilled, and this is dependent on the sediment in which the hole was first created.

The oldest confirmed human burials to date comes from the Middle East, where multiple burials have been unearthed in caves in Israel.

'The earliest actual burials are not in Africa,' says Louise. 'They are in Israel and date to around 120,000 years old. And we also know that Neanderthals sometimes buried their dead.

'So either Neanderthals learned it from modern humans or the other way around, or the capacity for this type of behaviour was already present in the last common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans.'

More to come

It is possible that the reason why the oldest burials have been found outside of Africa is simply an historical artefact, as there have been more archaeologists digging for a longer time the Middle East.

It is almost certain that if researchers start looking in more detail in the right places on the African continent, then older human burials will emerge.

'Preservation is a huge issue, but undoubtably the evidence that we find is just going to be the tip of the iceberg,' says Louise. 'I think if archaeologists start looking, they will find more as there are probably older human burials out there.

'Hopefully this will spur on other researchers. It is a bit of a wake-up call.'