African child buried 78,000 years ago

Foto: Het zorgvuldig gerangschikte skelet van een kind Copyright BBC / Jorge Gonzalez & Elena Santos

An infant laid to rest in an earthen grave 78,000 years ago is the earliest known human burial in Africa, according to a paper published in the journal Nature. The three-year old boy had been buried in a shroud, with his legs carefully tucked up against his chest and his head lying on a pillow, clearly indicating some form of funerary rite.

Dating from the Middle Stone Age, the grave was discovered in a sunken pit during excavations inside a cave on the Kenyan coast. Scientists have named the boy Mtoto – Swahili for “child.”

By carefully wrapping the fragile skeleton in plaster researchers were able to move the body to a laboratory for closer examination. Study of the teeth confirmed that this was the tiny body of a human child between two and three years old which had been laid in a foetal position. The way that the bones had subsequently moved suggested that the body had been wrapped tightly, as in a shroud, with the head resting on something like a cushion of leaves or animal skins.

Archaeologist Prof Martinón-Torres said: “We think the child was wrapped in a shroud made of leaves or animal skins – like he was placed in his last sleep … There is such a delicacy and intention that really expresses feelings from the group towards this child.” Prof Martinón-Torres added “He was buried in the cave where the people lived.”

Text     Alun Harvey


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