Nearly 80,000 years oldest, a three-year-old child was carefully laid to rest in a small pit at the entrance of Panga ya Saidi, a cave in eastern Kenya.

Locals folded the child’s knees up to the chest and wrapped the body in a shroud. The child’s body was then placed on its right side in the small pit. Locals made it lie on its head on a supportive pillow before scattering soil collected from the nearby cave floor over the body.

For thousands of years, the burial site had not been touched. Now, a team of archaeologists has found that the child’s remains represent the oldest known modern human burial in Africa, according to a study published in Nature.

The discovery gives insight into how people from over 78,000 years ago treated their dead.

Researchers first came across some of the oldest child’s bones in 2013 while doing excavations at the Panga ya Saidi cave site. It wasn’t until four years later that researchers fully uncovered the pit and found the skeleton of the child, who was later nicknamed “Mtoto,” meaning “child” in Swahili.

The skeleton, tightly curled up, was found in a shallow, circular pit about 3 metres deep. Remains that were intact included oldest parts of the skull, face, and lower jawbone, five teeth, the spine and ribs, the right collarbone and left upper arm bone.

Oldest and Decomposed Body

The oldest decomposed bones were too fragile for researchers to analyse on-site. Thus, they were covered with plaster and were analysed at labs at the National Research Centre on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain.

The researchers, after analysing the teeth, confirmed that the remains were oldest those of a human child who died at about three years old.

They also discovered that the body had been buried deliberately, rather than by natural processes. The position of the oldest skull suggests that it once laid on a pillow that had perished over time. “This type of movement of the head is usually found in those burials where the oldest head is resting over a pillow or perishable support — the moment that support disappears, disintegrates, decays, it creates space below the head and because of gravity the head tilts,” said study author María Martinón-Torres, director at the National Research Center on oldest Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, Spain.

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