The remains of a child no older than three were unearthed in a 78,000-year-old grave, with his legs carefully tucked up against its tiny chest. A new study suggests it is the earliest known human burial in Africa.
The sunken pit, in a cave complex along the coast of Kenya, was bereft of ornaments, offerings clay carvings found in the region's more recent Stone Age graves, as detailed in the journal Nature. But "Mtoto" -- Swahili for "child" -- had been wrapped in a shroud with her or his head resting on what was probably a pillow, "indicating that the community may have undertaken some form of funerary rite," said lead author Maria Martinon-Torres, director of the National Research Center on Human Evolution, in Burgos, Spain.
The extraordinary find highlights the emergence of both complex social behavior among Homo sapiens, and cultural differences across populations of modern humans in Africa and beyond.
Fragments of the child's bones were dug up at the Panga ya Saidi caves in 2013, but it wasn't until five years later that the shallow, circular grave -- three meters below the cave floor -- was fully exposed, revealing a tight cluster and decomposed bones.
"At this point, we weren't sure what we had found. The bones were just too delicate to study in the field," said Emmanuel Ndiema of the National Museum of Kenya.
Archaeologists stabilized and plastered them into a bundle and transported them, first to the museum and then to the research center in Spain.
"We started uncovering parts of the skull and face. The articulation of the spine and the ribs was also astonishingly well preserved, even conserving the curvature of the thorax cage," Martinon-Torres said.
Subsequent microscopic analysis and luminescence dating confirmed that Mtoto's tiny body had been carefully covered with dirt from around the pit, and had rested undisturbed for nearly 80,000 years.
Homo sapiens originated in Africa, but little is known about mortuary practices on the continent compared to Europe and the Middle East, where even older human burial sites have been unearthed, including one in Israel thought to be 120,000 years old. Intriguingly, infant and child burials make up nearly half of all known interments from that time until the end of the Middle Stone Age, about 30,000 years ago.