“A Child Resting On A Pillow” Team Unearths One Of The Oldest Burial Site

By John McSwiggan , May 13, 2021

“A Child Resting On A Pillow” Team Unearths One Of The Oldest Burial Site

By John McSwiggan , May 13, 2021

Features History

Researchers uncovered the remains of a toddler resting gently on a pillow in the oldest intentional burial site in Africa. Experts believed that the finding provides valuable insight into the complex emotions and behaviors of early humans. 

Mtoto’s Grave

According to the study, the remains date back to 78,000 years. Researchers also estimate that at the time of his death, the child is around three years old.

Moto, a three-year-old child, died 78,000 years ago and is Africa’s oldest-known burial.
Moto, a three-year-old child, died 78,000 years ago and is Africa’s oldest-known burial.

Because of his age, the research team named the toddler Mtoto which means “child” in Swahili. The team also notes that the placement of the remains suggests a sense of gentleness and care. 

According to the research author, María Martinón-Torres, she shared that the arrangement resembles a fetal position. The author describes that Mtoto is placed on his right side, his legs tucked to his chest while his head rests on a pillow.

Perishable material such as leather or leaves serves as the child’s pillow. The study explained that once the material disintegrates, it creates a space beneath the skull causing the head to tilt. The child’s back also remains intact which suggests he was once wrapped in a shroud.

Researchers unearth Mtoto’s gravesite mouth of the Panga ya Saidi cave, a massive cave system located near the Kenyan coast. Experts originally discovered the body in 2013, but it would take four years for the team to unearth the child’s entire skeleton. 

The Excavation Process

The team explained that removing the remains was a difficult process since the bones were too fragile. In fact, the remains would turn into dust every time the excavation team tried to extract the body.

Kenya’s Panga ya Saidi cave, where Africa’s oldest-known burial was discovered.
Kenya’s Panga ya Saidi cave, where Africa’s oldest-known burial was discovered.

They even used several techniques such as pouring resin into the remains. Eventually, they successfully unearthed Mtoto’s body by digging a pit around his grave. The team then poured plaster all over the site to preserve the bone arrangement. 

The National Museums of Kenya in partnership with the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany heads the difficult excavation process. Michael Petraglia, a professor of human evolution at the Max Planck Institute believed that the discovery, “is quite spectacular.”

He continues, “It is the oldest human burial in Africa.” Petraglia notes that the grave resembles some of the social behaviors that people observe today. 

An Insight To The Afterlife

Prof Nicole Bovin, a member of the Planck Institute, shared that the grave showed how early humans process grief and death. The Professor explained that the idea of the afterlife is one of the things that are unique to humans and makes them distinct from other animals. 

In  a statement, Martinón-Torres said, “We could infer this child… was really put there in a specific position with a pillow under his head.” The research author notes that the position shows a sense of “respect,” “care”, and “tenderness.”

Finally,  Martinón-Torres shared, “I really think it’s one of most important, the earliest evidence in Africa, of humans living in the physical and the symbolic world.” 

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