May 5 (UPI) -- Researchers have recovered the remains of a three-year-old child buried 78,000 years ago in an ancient pit north of Mombasa, Kenya, according to a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
The human burial pit, dubbed Panga ya Saidi, is the oldest yet discovered in Africa.
Ancient human burials are rare in Africa. The next oldest burial is South Africa's Border Cave infant, discovered in 1941 and dated to between 74,000 and 58,000 years ago.
Researchers named the ancient human child Mtoto, which is a Swahili word that means "child."
"The bones themselves could not be dated, so we had to date the sediment infilling of the pit where the child was buried," study co-author Alain Queffelec told UPI in an email.
"Using a technique called Optically Stimulated Luminescence, it is possible to date the last time the quartz and feldspar grains were exposed to sunlight. This method makes it possible to date sediments that are largely older than what could be dated by radiocarbon," said Queffelec, a researcher at the University of Bordeaux in France.
Scientists are positive the child was not simply discarded, but purposefully buried -- likely with the help of several members of the community.
Though signs of offerings or ochre are absent at Panga ya Saidi, researchers said they suspect the child's burial featured complex ritual.
"We determined that the body was buried in a pit by comparing the geochemistry and particle size of the pit sediment with the sediment of the different stratigraphic layers, and by observing the structure of the sediment under the microscope," Queffelec said.
By analyzing the arrangement of sediment and bones within the ancient pit, scientists determined that the child was wrapped in a shroud made from perishable material prior to burial.
Researchers also determined the child's head was laid on an object also made from perishable material.
"The preservation of anatomical connections and joints is also an important feature, diagnostic of an intentional deposit," Queffelec said. "In particular, the position of the kid's bones is consistent with the fact that the upper part of the body was wrapped and the head supported with perishable material."
Though Mtoto was most certainly a modern human, Homo sapiens, analysis of the child's dental morphology suggest archaic traits from more distant African ancestors were still present among early human populations.
The preservation of primitive traits in Mtoto also suggests modern humans have deep, diverse roots in Africa, and that the emergence and evolution of Homo sapiens was complex, researchers said.