A child’s grave is the first known burial site in Africa
Much of the current debate around the location and timing of the emergence of modern human behavior centers on Africa during the Middle Stone Age (MSA), which lasted around 320,000 to 30,000 years ago. 000 years old. The first known appearances of a series of modern human innovations related to technology, social organization, symbolism and the exploitation of landscape and resources occurred in Africa during this period.1. This period is also associated with the earliest known hominid fossils placed in modern human lineage.2,3. The emergence of more complex behaviors surrounding the treatment of the dead is often framed in the larger context of an increase in symbolic capacities.4. Write in Nature, Martinón-Torres et al.5 present a convincing case for the intentional burial of a young child in East Africa, at Panga ya Saidi, a cave in Kenya (Fig. 1). The careful recording of this archaeological evidence by the authors has revealed the oldest known human burial in Africa.
The child, estimated to be around three years old, appears to have been carefully stored in a deliberately dug pit, then covered with sediment taken from the cave floor. The microscopic features of the bone structure and the chemical composition of the sediment surrounding the bones reveal that the body was cool when it was buried and decomposed in the grave. The arrangement of the surviving bone fragments reveals that the infant was placed lying gently tilted on his right side, legs bent and pulled towards the chest.
Several anatomical connections between adjacent bones have survived, suggesting that the body was covered soon after burial. A gradual trickle of sediment over the corpse presumably kept the bones from collapsing into the voids that would otherwise have formed during soft tissue decay. An exception to this was the skull and the three neck bones, which collapsed into a void that would have been created by the decomposition of a perishable head support. The right collarbone (one of the bones in the shoulder girdle) and two ribs had rotated in the grave, which could imply that part of the upper body was originally tightly wrapped in perishable material.
The burial pit and the archaeological layers surrounding and directly above it are paired with MSA stone tools, firmly anchoring the burial within the MSA. Martinon-Torres et al. date the burial itself at 78,300 ± 4,100 years. The date was obtained using probabilistic modeling and a technique called optically stimulated luminescence to determine the age of the entire sequence of archaeological layers assessed. This finding demonstrates that humans in East Africa deliberately buried their dead at least 78,000 years ago.
Archaeological and fossil records reveal a wide range of mortuary treatments carried out by the first humans (species of the genus Homo) spanning at least about 800,000 years (Fig. 1). The first step in understanding the nature of these mortuary behaviors – the actions and beliefs surrounding the treatment of the dead – is to reconstruct the series of human actions associated with the deposition of a body.
All mortuary behavior does not leave visible traces archaeologically. The importance of a burial is that it documents a sequence of planned and deliberate actions involving: the creation of an artificial space to contain the body; the placement of a body or parts of the body in this space; and covering the body, often using the sediment that was removed during the preparation of the grave6. Each of these stages can, but not always, leave visible archaeological traces, so that not all burials will be recognized as such. Other actions that leave lasting traces in archaeological records relate to the treatment of the corpse and may involve the removal of soft tissue, the separation of body parts, or signs of cooking or chewing indicating cannibalism. Examples have been found in archaeological records of human bones that have been fashioned into tools and used as decorative items.
The second step towards understanding these mortuary behaviors is to infer whether there was any significance associated with the treatment of the dead beyond the practical measures required to avoid attracting animal scavengers to spaces used by the living and to prevent contamination of these spaces during the decomposition of the body. Strictly functional interventions can also include disarticulating the body to facilitate transport, nutritional cannibalism, or the opportunistic use of bones or teeth as tools or as a raw material for making an object. The deduction of signs of symbolic behavior in burials is one of the most controversial areas of archeology.
Behaviors that might indicate a deviation from purely practical motives and toward more meaningful treatment of the dead are those that involve an investment of time and resources beyond what is strictly necessary to dispose or use the corpse. Such actions include the careful placement of the corpse in the grave to achieve a desired body position or orientation, the wrapping or binding of the body for reasons other than to facilitate transportation, or the deliberate incorporation of valuables. in the grave. These objects include objects that could reasonably be considered to have personal or decorative significance, and those related to the social role of the deceased. Buried objects can also include items that the deceased would need in another existence, such as food or medicine. Repeated depositions of corpses over an extended period in one location could mean recognition of a place for the dead6, especially if this place is difficult to access and other causes of accumulation of remains can be excluded. The fossil assemblages of Sima de los Huesos in Spain7 and Rising Star Cave in South Africa8 can be interpreted as early examples of placement of dead in a designated space (Fig. 1).
The presence of symbolic aspects elevates the treatment of the dead from mortuary behavior to funeral behavior9. The burial reported by Martinón-Torres and his colleagues reveals the care and effort taken to achieve a desired body position by supporting the child’s head and enveloping the upper body. This burial, along with a previous report of the burial of a child around 74,000 years ago, associated with a seashell ornament in South Africa at Border Caveten, suggests that a tradition of symbolically meaningful burials, at least for the very young, may have been culturally entrenched in parts of Africa in the latter part of the MSA.
Understanding the treatment of the dead intersects our understanding of social organization, symbolic behaviors, and the use of landscape, resources and technology. The act of burial limits the dispersal of the body and other contents of the tomb, increasing the probability of archaeological recovery, and provides an unambiguous association between the deceased – and therefore the species he represents – and a certain set. of behaviors at a specific time and place. Future discoveries in Africa and beyond could shed even more light on the evolution of modern traits and behaviors during the emergence of our species.