‘Astonishing’ ritual burial of 3-year-old found after 78,000 years ‘is earliest sign of human grief’

THE grave of a three-year-old child who was buried around 78,000 year ago has been labelled as Africa’s ‘oldest human burial’.

The remains of the young child were found in a cave on the Kenyan coast and revealed “astonishingly preserved” deliberate bone arrangements.

An artists impression of how the child was placed in the shallow grave

An artists impression of how the child was placed in the shallow graveCredit: Reuters

It’s thought the child was buried in a certain position at the Panga ya Saidi cave for ritual reasons.

Researchers working on the project have published their findings in the journal Nature.

They think this is the earliest evidence of a ceremonial burial by modern humans in Africa.

Experts also think its some of the earliest evidence of human grief and provides insight into how our ancient ancestors treated the dead.

The researchers used computer generated images to show a reconstruction of how the bones were found in the pit

The researchers used computer generated images to show a reconstruction of how the bones were found in the pitCredit: Reuters

Experts think the child was deliberately placed in a curled up sleeping position

Experts think the child was deliberately placed in a curled up sleeping positionCredit: AFP

According to The Times, Dr Louise Humphrey of the Natural History Museum said: “What we’re seeing here is evidence of a ‘meaningful’ burial — there is definitely a sense of loss or grief.”

The child was buried in a shallow grave pit beneath the sheltered overhang of the cave.

Analysis showed they were buried quite quickly after their death and decomposed in the pit.

The toddler has been nicknamed ‘Mtoto,’ meaning ‘child’ in Swahili.

Bone analysis revealed the child's age and how long ago they were buried

Bone analysis revealed the child’s age and how long ago they were buriedCredit: AFP

Mtoto’s body was placed on its right side with their knees drawn to their chest.

Professor María Martinón-Torres, director at CENIEH labs which helped analyse the body, said: “the position and collapse of the head in the pit suggested that a perishable support may have been present, such as a pillow, indicating that the community may have undertaken some form of funerary rite.”

The researchers think the burial was “a complex ritual that likely required the active participation of many members of the child’s community”.

The bones were found at the Panga ya Saidi cave in Kenya

The bones were found at the Panga ya Saidi cave in KenyaCredit: Reuters

Researchers first started uncovering the bones in 2013 but didn’t realise the magnitude of what they had found until 2017.

The bones were too delicate to examine at the site so they were taken to the CENIEH lab in Spain.

Luminescence dating was used to discover the bones were 78,000 years old.

This makes it the oldest known human burial in Africa but not the world.

Human bones of a mother and child found at Qafzeh cave in Nazareth, Israel, are thought to be evidence of a ritual burial 90,000 to 100,000 years ago.

Other burials in Europa and Asia date back 120,000 years and are associated with Neanderthals as well as Homo sapiens.

Professor Michael Petraglia from the Max Planck Institute said: “The Panga ya Saidi burial shows that inhumation of the dead is a cultural practice shared by Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.

“This find opens up questions about the origin and evolution of mortuary practices between two closely related human species, and the degree to which our behaviours and emotions differ from one another.”

A timeline of life on Earth

Here’s a brief history of life on our planet

  • 4.6billion years ago – the origin of Earth
  • 3.8billion years ago – first life appears on Earth
  • 2.1billion years ago – lifeforms made up of multiple cells evolve
  • 1.5billion years ago – eukaryotes, which are cells that contain a nucleus inside of their membranes, emerge
  • 550million years ago – first arthropods evolve
  • 530million years ago – first fish appear
  • 470million years ago – first land plants appear
  • 380million years ago – forests emerge on Earth
  • 370million years ago – first amphibians emerge from the water onto land
  • 320million years ago – earliest reptiles evolve
  • 230million years ago – dinosaurs evolve
  • 200million years ago – mammals appear
  • 150million years ago – earliest birds evolve
  • 130million years ago – first flowering plants
  • 100million years ago – earliest bees
  • 55million years ago – hares and rabbits appear
  • 30million years ago – first cats evolve
  • 20million years ago – great apes evolve
  • 7million years ago –first human ancestors appear
  • 2million years ago – Homo erectus appears
  • 300,000 years ago – Homo sapiens evolves
  • 50,000 years ago – Eurasia and Oceania colonised
  • 40,000 years ago – Neandethal extinction
Massive ancient death pit filled with hundreds of corpses uncovered in northern Spain

In other archaeology news, 3,000 bodies will have to be dug up from a medieval graveyard and reburied due to ongoing HS2 rail link work.

Scuba divers found a huge 50 pound mammoth bone in a Florida river.

An unearthed stone slab dating back to the Bronze Age may represent Europe’s oldest map.

What are your thoughts on the ‘oldest human burial’ discovery? Let us know in the comments…

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