What Africa’s oldest human burial says about our ancestors

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What Africa’s oldest human burial says about our ancestors

The 78,000-year-old burial of a child suggests African people treated their dead differently to Eurasians

Simon Armitage

How did human uniqueness first evolve among our ancestors, setting us apart from other animals? That is a question many archaeologists are grappling with by investigating early records of art, language, food preparation, ornaments and symbols. How our ancestors treated and mourned the dead can also offer crucial clues, helping to reveal when we first developed the abstract thinking needed to fully grasp the concept of death.

Now we have discovered a 78,000-year-old human burial at a cave on the tropical coast of eastern Africa, which provides tantalising evidence about our ancestors’ treatment of the dead. Our new study, published in Nature, describes the burial of a two-and-a-half- to three-year-old child, nicknamed “Mtoto” (Swahili for “child”), at the Panga ya Saidi archaeological site in Kenya. It is the earliest known Homo sapiens burial in Africa.

The excavations began in 2010. So far they have revealed a record of human occupation from 78,000 to 500 years ago, covering the Middle Stone Age and Later Stone Age periods of African archaeology. Mtoto’s burial lay towards the base of the excavation site and was first recognised because it contained sediment of a different colour from the surroundings...

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