The Buried Truths That Say A Lot About Our Ancestors | Kenan malik
Sscientists have discovered what may be the oldest known burial site in Africa. The remains of a person, probably two or three years old, buried some 78,000 years ago have been found in Panga ya Saidi, a cave system in Kenya. The child, named Mtoto, meaning “child” in Swahili, appears to have been placed on its side with its legs folded over the chest and its head resting on a support that has long since expired. The body may have been wrapped in some form of material, possibly animal skin, which perished again.
Mtoto is not the first human burial that we know of. There are several sites in the Middle East where modern humans (Homo sapiens) were buried at least 120,000 years ago. We also know Neanderthal burials. Some anthropologists suggest that an even older human species, Homo naledi, may also have buried their dead, although this is controversial.
The question of ancient burials, and whether they were intentional, is an important and often controversial issue because, for humans, death is such a culturally significant event. The way we treat the dead tells us something about how we imagine the living and the value we place on them.
Ancient burials are also important for deepening our understanding of the development of human thought. Language and thought do not fossilize. Burials, however, provide material evidence of the emergence of symbolic imagination, the ability to transcend the present, to think about the past and the future, to have beliefs, to mourn for others.
A burial like the one at Mtoto connects us to humans 78,000 years ago and allows us to imagine them as humans. This is why such finds are so special.