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Where was the oldest human burial found? - Anna Larina

Where was the oldest human burial found? - Anna Larina

Africa is considered the cradle and historical homeland of humanity.

It was in East Africa that the first member of the Homo habilis ("handy man") genus appeared. Despite that, few human burials have been found on the continent, and all the remains date no more than 30,000 years back. Whereas in Europe and Asia, there are known burial sites of Neanderthals that date back 120,000 years. This is so because Africa is far less studied by archaeologists than Eurasia.

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But on the 5th of May 2021, an important discovery was made: archaeologists discovered a 78,000 years old burial site, dating back to the Middle Stone Age. The remains have been recognised as the earliest example of a human burial to date on the African continent. The grave was found on the territory of modern Kenya, at the entrance to the Panga ya Saidi cave.

Back in 2017, bone remains were found in the cave cavity, but due to their fragile and decayed state, it was decided to preserve them and move them to the National Centre for Human Evolution Research.

The bones belonged to a child of about 3 years of age - microscopic analyses of the bones and teeth confirmed this. The sex could not be determined because the DNA fragments needed for qualitative analysis were not preserved and it was not possible to draw a conclusion about the sex of the child based on the data available.

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The researchers named the baby Mtoto, a Swahili word for "child". The child was buried in a cave, wrapped in a shroud (no trace of the cloth remained). A support ot a cushion was placed under the head and the body was covered with animal skins.

The burial order established by the researchers and rituals accompanying the ceremony indicate that human transition to the other world had great importance.

Funerary practices are extremely interesting to study. Attitude towards the dead and burial rituals reflect the cultural level of a particular society. By studying burial rites, archaeologists can reconstruct the social and gender composition of society, the structure of marriage and family relations, and learn about people's beliefs about the other world and even the prevalence of diseases and life expectancy of ancient people.

They help to learn more about the people's worldview and its transformation over time.

The discovery of the baby Mtoto is therefore extremely important for science: so many ancient burials have never been found in Africa before, and perhaps this find will be followed by others, thus providing a huge layer of information about the distant past.

Anna Larina, expert historian


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