Story at a glance

  • Researchers first discovered the bones during excavations in 2013 at the mouth of the Panga ya Saidi cave site along the coastline of southeastern Kenya.
  • The ancient remains are believed to be that of a 2 to 3-year-old child.
  • Scans of the specimen revealed that the child’s body had been laid in a fetal position with knees tucked up towards the chest, and the position of the skull suggests it may have been laid on a headrest or pillow.

Archaeologists have uncovered the oldest known human burial in Africa: a young child laid to rest in a shallow grave 78,000 years ago. 

New research published Wednesday in the journal Nature details the excavation of the child’s grave at the mouth of the Panga ya Saidi cave site along the coastline of southeastern Kenya. 


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Researchers first discovered portions of the child’s bones during excavations in 2013 and spent the next several years digging and casting the fragile bones in plaster. 

“At this point, we weren’t sure what we had found. The bones were just too delicate to study in the field,” Emmanuel Ndiema of the National Museums of Kenya said in a release. “We had a find that we were pretty excited about - but it would be a while before we understood its importance.” 

The specimen was then transported to a laboratory for detailed analysis. Researchers were later able to study teeth and confirm the remains belonged to a 2 to 3-year-old human, who was later nicknamed “Mtoto,” which means "child" in Swahili. 

Scans of the specimen revealed that the child’s body had been laid in a fetal position with knees tucked up towards the chest, and the position of the skull suggests it may have been laid on a headrest or pillow. Researchers believe the body may have been wrapped tightly in a shroud material before burial, and they determined the child was intentionally buried shortly after death.

“The articulation of the spine and the ribs was also astonishingly preserved, even conserving the curvature of the thorax cage, suggesting that it was an undisturbed burial and that the decomposition of the body took place right in the pit where the bones were found,” María Martinón-Torres, director of the National Research Center on Human Evolution (CENIEH), said. 

While the site is believed to be the oldest known burial site in Africa, Archaeologists have made similar discoveries in Asia that range between 90,000 and 130,000 years old. 


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Published on May 06, 2021