Africa’s oldest human burial site uncovered

Photo by Panga Ya Saidi. Karst system located 50 kilometers north of Mombasa in

Photo by Panga Ya Saidi. Karst system located 50 kilometers north of Mombasa in Kenya (top); 3D reconstruction of the arrangement of the child’s remains (center), artistic reconstruction of the burial (down). © Mohammad Javad Shoaee / Jorge González / Elena Santos / F. Fuego / MaxPlanck Institute / CENIEH.

The discovery of the earliest human burial site yet found in Africa, by an international team including several CNRS researchers 1 , has just been announced in the journal Nature. At Panga ya Saidi, in Kenya, north of Mombasa, the body of a three-year-old, dubbed Mtoto (Swahili for ’child’) by the researchers, was deposited and buried in an excavated pit approximately 78,000 years ago. Through analysis of sediments and the arrangement of the bones, the research team showed that the body had been protected by being wrapped in a shroud made of perishable material, and that the head had likely rested on an object also of perishable material. Though there are no signs of offerings or ochre, both common at more recent burial sites, the funerary treatment given Mtoto suggests a complex ritual that likely required the active participation of many members of the child’s community. Though Mtoto was a Homo sapiens, the child’s dental morphology, in contrast with that observed in human remains of the same period, preserves certain archaic traits connecting it to distant African ancestors. This apparently confirms that, as has often been posited in recent years, our species has extremely old and regionally diverse roots in the African continent where it arose. A documentary on the work of the French team at Panga ya Saidi in English, French, and Italian can be viewed at: The Université de Bordeaux organizing a digital film debate on Friday, May 7.

  • 1. Participating CNRS researchers hail from the PACEA (CNRS / University of Bordeaux / French Ministry of Culture) and IRAMAT (CNRS / Université Bourgogne Franche-Comté / University of Orléans / Bordeaux Montaigne University) research units. In France, this research was funded by the LaScArBx Laboratory of Excellence (LabEx).

Earliest human burial in Africa. María Martinón-Torres, Francesco d’Errico, Elena Santos, Ana Álvaro Gallo, Noel Amano, William Archer, Simon J. Armitage, Juan Luis Arsuaga, José María Bermúdez de Castro, James Blinkhorn, Alison Crowther, Katerina Douka, Stéphan Dubernet, Patrick Faulkner, Pilar Fernández-Colón, Nikos Kourampas, Jorge González García, David Larreina, François-Xavier Le Bourdonnec, George MacLeod, Laura Martín-Francés, Diyendo Massilani, Julio Mercader, Jennifer M. Miller, Emmanuel Ndiema, Belén Notario, Africa Pitarch Martí, Mary E. Prendergast, Alain Queffelec, Solange Rigaud, Patrick Roberts, Mohammad Javad Shoaee, Ceri Shipton, Ian Simpson, Nicole Boivin and Michael D. Petraglia. Nature, may 5 2021. DOI : 10.1038/s41586-021-03457-8.


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