Category Archives: KENYA

Africa’s Oldest Human Grave Found, Toddler Buried With Pillow 78,000 Years Ago

Africa’s Oldest Human Grave Found, Toddler Buried With Pillow 78,000 Years Ago

A village in East Africa buried a boy aged around 3 years old 78,000 years ago. Its caretakers dug a shallow pit, curled its small body, and may have rested its head on a pillow before committing the body to the earth.

According to a new study, the discovery of the child’s grave has revealed the earliest recorded traces of early humans burying their dead in Africa.

“It’s beautifully excavated … and there can be no dissension that it’s a burial,” says Paul Pettitt, a palaeolithic archaeologist at Durham University who studies ancient mortuary practices and was not involved with the work. “It shows that the tradition of burying some of the dead … probably arose from a common custom amidst Homo sapiens in Africa.”

Intentional burials are relatively rare in the archaeological record before about 30,000 years ago. Previously, the oldest suspected burials in Africa dated to 74,000 and 68,000 years ago—in South Africa’s Border Cave and in Taramsa, Egypt, respectively. In Eurasia, burials of modern humans and Neanderthals up to 120,000 years old have been found, but those involved peoples who contributed little to humans living today.

The new grave was found in 2013 under the rocky overhang of a cave called Panga ya Saidi along the coastline of southeastern Kenya. Archaeologists and local workers noticed an unusual, pit-shaped undulation of sediment within the walls of one of their trenches.

The cave site of Panga ya Saidi, in Kenya’s Kilifi County is seen in this undated photograph.

When they inspected it, a small bone fell out—and promptly turned to dust. Realizing they had found an extraordinarily delicate fossil, the archaeologists spent the next 4 years painstakingly digging and casting the fragile bones in plaster. Two teeth later analyzed at the National Museums of Kenya unambiguously identified the body as a human child.

The researchers then sent the remains to a lab at the National Center for Research on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain, for further analysis. Virtually sorting through the layers of bone and dirt using computerized tomography, scientists analyzed the bones.

They couldn’t determine how the child had died, but its position suggested caretakers had deliberately curled it into a fetal position before placing it into a shallow pit, explains the study’s senior author, Michael Petraglia, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

The skeleton’s torqued shoulder indicates it was likely wrapped tightly in a shroudlike material, and the way the skull twisted and bent inside its grave suggests it may have been propped up on some sort of pillow that slowly decayed.

Scientists used computerized tomography to peer through layers of sediment to reveal the delicate fossils within.

A technique that tells scientists when sediments were last exposed to light revealed the remains were deposited about 78,000 years ago, making this the oldest known human burial site in Africa, the researchers report today in Nature.

Emmanuel Ndiema, an archaeologist at the National Museums and one of the study’s co-authors, named the child Mtoto, after the same word in Swahili. The remains have since been returned to the National Museums.

Africa's Oldest Human Grave Found, Toddler Buried With Pillow 78,000 Years Ago
An artist’s illustration depicts how Mtoto may have been laid to rest in its grave.

As complex symbolic behaviours, including jewellery use and ochre pigment painting, are thought to have arisen in Africa, the birthplace of our species, about 125,000 to 100,000 years ago, it’s reasonable to think that human burial may have also emerged there and spread around the world with early migrants from the continent, Petraglia says. It’s not clear though, he says, whether Neanderthals independently began to bury their dead or the roots of burial-related behaviours go back to the common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals.

Nearly half of such ancient burials involve children, Petraglia points out. Dying young may have been seen then, as now, as particularly tragic, prompting the community to commemorate the death. “Here we have a child where the legs are pulled up to the chest, in a small pit—it’s almost like the womb,” Petraglia says.

Julien Riel-Salvatore, an anthropologist at the University of Montreal, agrees that the level of care that went into Mtoto’s burial suggests a child’s death was especially poignant.

“The idea that people would go out of their way to preserve the child’s body, which would slow its decay and protect it from scavengers, reflects the fact that people cared deeply about their children,” he says.

More burials from the region and time period will need to be discovered before researchers can start to puzzle out the significance that burial held to these ancient humans, says Louise Humphrey, an anthropologist at the National History Museum in London. Still, she says, the tenderness of the burial in Panga ya Saidi reveals “an expression of personal loss”—a sorrow that transcends time.

People Lived in This Cave for 78,000 Years

People Lived in This Cave for 78,000 Years

A large cave site was identified by an international interdisciplinary group of scholars operating along the east coast of Africa that documented significant activities of hunter-gatherers and later, Iron Age communities.

Detailed environmental research has demonstrated that human occupations occur in a persistent tropical forest-grassland ecotone, adding new information about the habitats exploited by our species, and indicating that populations sought refuge in a relatively stable environment.

Prior to this cave excavation, little information was available about the last 78,000 years from coastal East Africa, with the majority of archaeological research focused on the Rift Valley and in South Africa.

Humans lived in the humid coastal forest

A large-scale interdisciplinary study, including scientific analyses of archaeological plants, animals, and shells from the cave indicates a broad perseverance of forest and grassland environments.

As the cave environment underwent little variation over time, humans found the site attractive for occupation, even during periods of time when other parts of Africa would have been inhospitable.

This suggests that humans exploited the cave environment and landscape over the long term, relying on plant and animal resources when the wider surrounding landscapes dried.

The ecological setting of Panga ya Saidi is consistent with increasing evidence that Homo sapiens could adapt to a variety of environments as they moved across Africa and Eurasia, suggesting that flexibility may be the hallmark of our species.

Shipton et al report a 78,000-year-long archeological record from Panga ya Saidi, a cave in the humid coastal forest of Kenya.

Homo sapiens developed a range of survival strategies to live in diverse habitats, including tropical forests, arid zones, coasts, and the cold environments found at higher latitudes.

Technological innovations occur at 67,000 years ago

Carefully prepared stone tool toolkits of the Middle Stone Age occur in deposits dating back to 78,000 years ago, but a distinct shift in technology to the Later Stone Age is shown by the recovery of small artifacts beginning at 67,000 years ago.

The miniaturization of stone tools may reflect changes in hunting practices and behaviors. The Panga ya Saidi sequence after 67,000, however, has a mix of technologies, and no radical break of behavior can be detected at any time, arguing against the cognitive or cultural ‘revolutions’ theorized by some archaeologists.

Moreover, no notable break in human occupation occurs during the Toba volcanic super-eruption of 74,000 years ago, supporting views that the so-called ‘volcanic winter’ did not lead to the near-extinction of human populations, though hints of increased occupation intensity from 60,000 years ago suggest that populations were increasing in size.

Earliest symbolic and cultural items found at Panga ya Saidi cave

The deep archaeological sequence of Panga ya Saidi cave has produced a remarkable new cultural record indicative of cultural complexity over the long term.

Among the recovered items are worked and incised bones, ostrich eggshell beads, marine shell beads, and worked ochre. Panga ya Saidi has produced the oldest bead in Kenya, dating to ~65,000 years ago.

At about 33,000 years ago, beads were most commonly made of shells acquired from the coast. While this demonstrates contact with the coast, there is no evidence for the regular exploitation of marine resources for subsistence purposes.

Ostrich eggshell beads become more common after 25,000 years ago, and after 10,000 years ago, there is again a shift to coastal shell use.

In the layers dating to between ~48,000 to 25,000 years ago, carved bone, carved tusk, a decorated bone tube, a small bone point, and modified pieces of ochre were found. Though indicative of behavioral complexity and symbolism, their intermittent appearance in the cave sequence argues against a model for a behavioral or cognitive revolution at any specific point in time.

Project Principal Investigator and Director of the Department of Archaeology at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History Dr. Nicole Boivin states, “The East African coastal hinterland and its forests and have been long considered to be marginal to human evolution so the discovery of Panga ya Saidi cave will certainly change archaeologists’ views and perceptions.”

Group Leader of the Stable Isotopes Lab Dr. Patrick Roberts adds, “Occupation in a tropical forest-grassland environment adds to our knowledge that our species lived in a variety of habitats in Africa.”

“The finds at Panga ya Saidi undermine hypotheses about the use of coasts as a kind of ‘superhighway’ that channeled migrating humans out of Africa, and around the Indian Ocean rim,” observes Professor Michael Petraglia.

1.5-Million-Year-Old Footprints Reveal Human Ancestor Walked Like Us

1.5-Million-Year-Old Footprints Reveal Human Ancestor Walked Like Us

Homo erectus last walked through the Earth for thousands of years, but our fossil ancestors likely had a few behaviours in common with humans today.

In a new study, researchers have examined a set of 1.5-million-year-old footprints discovered in Kenya, revealing new insight on how they moved and interacted.

The international team discovered that Homo erectus was able to go along in the same manner as modern humans and had human-like social behaviour, using innovative analytical techniques.

This 1.5-million-year-old footprint suggests that Homo erectus, an early human ancestor, had feet that were very similar to those of modern humans.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, along with an international team of scientists, investigated ancient hominin footprints discovered in 2009 near the town of Ileret, Kenya.

The continued efforts since the initial discovery revealed an unprecedented set of trace fossils, consisting of 97 tracks from at least 20 different individuals, all thought to be Homo erectus.

These were found over five distinct sites.

The researchers say the footprints are indistinguishable from those of a modern barefoot human, with similar foot anatomies and mechanics.

‘Our analyses of these footprints provide some of the only direct evidence to support the common assumption that at least one of our fossil relatives at 1.5 million years ago walked in much the same way as we do today,’ says Kevin Hatala, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and The George Washington University.

Habitual bipedal locomotion sets modern humans apart from other primates, and researchers have long debated the question of when this giant first emerged among hominins.

Determining these types of answers are difficult using traditional forms of paleoanthropological data, but the findings in Kenya and the use of new experimental techniques have provided a unique look at the locomotion patterns and social structures of Homo erectus.

The researchers also calculated body mass estimates based on the tracks, allowing them to infer the sexes of multiple individuals.

This revealed that there may have been several adult males at each of the sites, which suggests Homo erectus groups had developed some degree of tolerance and maybe even cooperation.

According to the researchers, this trait also separates modern humans from other primates.

‘It isn’t shocking that we find evidence of mutual tolerance and perhaps cooperation between makes in a hominin that lived 1.5 million years ago,’ says Hatala, ‘especially Homo erectus, but this is our first chance to see what appears to be a direct glimpse of this behavioural dynamic in deep time.’