A nearly 80,000-year-old grave discovered in Africa is the continent’s oldest-known human burial, archaeologists have announced. Those behind the find have christened the remains Mtoto, from the Swahili word for child.
Laid to rest some 78,000 years ago, the body is of a child estimated to have been between two and a half and three. Archaeologists from the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, discovered the burial in the mouth of the Panga ya Saidi cave on the coast of Kenya’s tropical uplands back in 2013, and published their findings this week in the journal .
“This is quite spectacular,” Michael Petraglia, a professor of human evolution and prehistory at the Max Planck Institute, told the . “It is the oldest human burial in Africa. It tells us something about our cognition, our sociality and our behaviors and they are all very familiar to us today.”
Excavating the world’s oldest grave presented a major technical challenge, as the ancient bones were so fragile that any attempt to remove fragments saw them crumble to dust, even when researchers applied resins to the remains. The team had to dig a pit around the bones and encase the entire grave in plaster so it could be transported to the National Museums of Kenya for further investigation.
After a year of analysis, the body was sent to a specialist lab at the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain, where it was scanned using micro-computed tomography, optical microscopy, and other non-invasive imaging techniques.
First, experts found teeth from a young . With further study, it became clear that the bones were of a child that appeared to have been buried with their knees tucked under their chin and a pillow resting under their head. The body was likely wrapped in a material that has since disintegrated, such as plant fibers or animal skins.
The body’s peaceful pose suggests funerary behavior—that the child was purposely laid to rest. Technical analysis of the soil supports this conclusion, with the burial pit containing different sediments than the surrounding soil, as well as tracks and shells from snails known to eat earthworms, which are often found around corpses after burial in the earth. These clues hint at evolving attitudes about death among early humans.
“Modern hunter-gatherer groups believe that death is natural and inevitable,” Paul Pettitt, an expert on Paleolithic burial from the Durham University in England who was not involved in the research, told . “But there are two exceptions: death through trauma, and the death of infants and children. Perhaps we can see the shadowy emergence of the sense that death coming too early is unnatural and needs to be marked in some way that is different from the norm.”
There have been discoveries of older burials in the world, including two in Israel dated to between 90,000 and 130,000 years ago. The scarcity of known ancient burial sites in Africa could mean that that early humans there had other ways of tending to the dead, but it could also be because there has been less archaeological research done to date on the continent. Either way, Mtoto represents an important discovery.
“It’s incredibly rare that we gain access to such a snapshot of a moment in time, especially one so very ancient,” Nicole Boivin, an archaeology professor at the Max Planck Institute, told the . “The burial takes us back to a very sad moment … one that despite the vast time separating us, we can understand as humans.”
See more images of Mtoto’s discovery below.