Africa's oldest human burial site uncovered

An international team, including scientists from the PACEA laboratory*, has just revealed in an article published May 5, 2021 in Nature the discovery in Kenya of the earliest human burial site yet found in Africa, dated at 78,000 years old.

  • 05/05/2021

General view of the cave site of Panga ya Saidi, Kenya © Mohammad Javad Shoaee General view of the cave site of Panga ya Saidi, Kenya © Mohammad Javad Shoaee

At Panga ya Saidi, a cave site 50 km north of Mombasa, Kenya, an international research team, including six scientists from the PACEA* and IRAMAT laboratories in Bordeaux, discovered the body of a three-year-old, dubbed Mtoto (Swahili for ‘child’) by the researchers. The remains of the child were deposited and buried in an excavated pit approximately 78,000 years ago. This discovery, published May 5, 2021 in the journal Nature, makes Panga ya Saidi the earliest human burial site yet found in Africa.

An intentional burial shortly after death

Through analysis of sediments and the arrangement of the bones, the research team showed that the body had been protected by being wrapped in a shroud made of perishable material, and that the head had likely rested on an object also of perishable material. Though there are no signs of offerings or ochre, both common at more recent burial sites, the funerary treatment given Mtoto suggests a complex ritual that likely required the active participation of many members of the child’s community.

Though Mtoto was a Homo sapiens, the child’s dental morphology, in contrast with that observed in human remains of the same period, preserves certain archaic traits connecting it to distant African ancestors. This apparently confirms that, as has often been posited in recent years, our species has extremely old and regionally diverse roots in the African continent where it arose.

*PACEA - From Prehistory to Modern Times: Culture, Environment and Anthropology (CNRS, French Ministry of Culture and University of Bordeaux)

Bibliographic reference

Earliest known human burial in Africa. María Martinón-Torres, Francesco d’Errico, et al.

Scientific contacts

Francesco d’Errico
Research director in archeology at the Pacea laboratory

Alain Queffelec
Research engineer in archeometry at the Pacea laboratory