Dream Teams

What an ancient burial taught scientists about humanity

“You could literally spend decades excavating this cave and make new discoveries.”

Mtoto position
Max Planck Institute

As Maria Martinón Torres walked through the airport security in Vienna, she cradled her carry-on bag tenderly, like it was a living thing. It’s best not to jostle the fragile remains of a 78,000-year-old child, even when encased in a block of sediment and zipped into a suitcase.

At the time, Martinón-Torres, the director of the Spanish National Research Center for Human Evolution (CENIEH), had no idea that the block of sediment she carried in her bag contained the oldest human burial ever found in Africa — a priceless piece of archaeological research and evidence our ancestors buried the dead with care. But she did suspect that it contained something special.

That’s why, in 2018, she volunteered to take the block of sediment back to Spain — the final leg of the specimen’s journey that began at Panga Ya Saidi, a cave in southeastern Kenya. The block had traveled from the cave to the National Museums of Kenya and, finally, to Vienna, Austria. Now, Martinón-Torres would take it to Spain, where special imaging tools could uncover the person inside the block.

“I brought it with all the delicacy you bring when you have a child in your arms,” she tells Inverse.

She raised eyebrows at airport security — guards initially asked to search her bag but were dissuaded once she showed them her travel permits and explained what it contained — but Martinón-Torres made it back to Spain. Over the next three years the mysteries within the block of sediment were revealed, piece by piece. The bones inside the sediment were those of a child, who had been intentionally wrapped in a shroud, placed on a pillow, and laid to rest. It’s some of the earliest evidence of funerary behavior in Africa, the place known to be the crucible of modern humanity.

The find helps trace the origins of funerary behavior, though it’s not the oldest example worldwide. It also set a new precedent for how scientists investigate ancient burials, says Martinón-Torres. The team worked with bones so fragile they were little more than shadows, and by convening over 30 experts through email, video, and WhatsApp, they were able to tell the story of an ancient child.

“I think this work somehow sets the standard,” she says.

The Panga Ya Saidi cave in southeastern Kenya.

THE DREAM — The first time Michael Petraglia, an anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, saw the Panga Ya Saidi site in 2009, he was struck by its vastness. Panga Ya Saidi actually consists of a network of caves, some large enough to have full forests growing inside.

“You can just imagine this beautiful, majestic-looking cave, with all this tropical vegetation growing in it,” he says.

Excavation at the site began in 2011, but it wasn’t until 2013, when a team of scientists from the National Museums of Kenya led by Emmanuel Ndiema and a team from Max Planck, first caught wind of the child’s burial pit. They had dug a trench about three meters down and encountered a change in the surrounding sediment. In 2017, they caught the first glimpses of decomposing bone.

“It really was a plastic bag full of samples.”

Ultimately, the team decided the remains were too fragile to excavate in the cave. In 2017, they plastered the block of sediment containing the bones and brought it to the National Museums of Kenya.

Within the block, Petraglia noticed what appeared to be teeth at the top and a shadow near the back that might have been a human spine. But the bones were almost ash-like and too fragile to excavate using traditional methods.

“If you touch them, they literally disintegrate like powder,” Martinón-Torres says.

He sent pictures to Martinón-Torres, an expert in ancient teeth who confirmed the teeth visible on top were likely human.

It wouldn’t be until Ndiema brought the block to Vienna in 2018, and Martinón-Torres saw them in person, that she confirmed her hunch and offered to bring the fragile block back to Spain. There, she slowly removed layer after layer of sediment to uncover who those teeth belonged to and how that person had ended up at Panga Ya Saidi.

The excavation site for the Panga Ya Saidi project.

Max Planck Institute

THE TEAM — There are over 30 different scientific collaborators who worked on the Panga Ya Saidi project, and not all of them have even seen the cave where the child was buried. Their expertise eventually proved essential to creating a scientific picture of what was going on inside that block of sediment.

The groundwork for some of those scientific relationships was laid even before the block of sediment was moved to the National Museums of Kenya.

Simon Armitage, a professor in quaternary science at the Royal Holloway University of London who was responsible for dating the sediments around the site, first became aware of the Panga Ya Saidi excavations in 2014. At the time, the team was taking careful samples of each layer of the cave and dating them as they went. This created an overflow of work for existing researchers on the project so Armitage was brought in. As Armitage puts it, the team was “up to their eyeballs” in sediments.

It was a bit of an unusual project, Armitage tells Inverse. Typically, he would go to the excavation site to take his own soil samples, but in this case, he received the soil samples while on a trip to Oxford to speak with one of the study’s lead authors, Nicole Boivin, the current director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and Petraglia.

When he entered Petraglia’s office, he spotted a piece of coloring done by one of his children. The child, Armitage noticed, had colored in a figure from one of Armitage’s own 2011 Science papers.

“It was a very human moment for the beginning of the project,” Armitage says.

When he left Oxford he was fully on board, carrying a handful of ancient soil sourced from Panga Ya Saidi with him in a type of supermarket shopping bag. “It really was a plastic bag full of samples,” he says. Those samples helped prove the sediments dated back 78,000 years.

In 2019, he was asked to analyze an additional sample that would prove to be from the grave of the buried child. That sample helped confirm the date of the burial.

Armitage was just one of 30 collaborators on the project, some of whom, he notes, he’s never met. The team was so large, some of the authors might not recognize one another if they passed on the street despite years of working on the same project. Armitage had been sequencing soil samples since 2014, before the team even knew there was a burial at Panga Ya Saidi.

“All the people on the team are great, but I’ve never met half of them. Literally, I wouldn’t recognize a good half of the author list,” Armitage says.

“Everyone was kind of beavering away doing their own little thing within the project,” he continues. “It's very obvious to me as the paper was getting put together that everyone had kind of pulled their weight and done their thing to make this as tight and as robust of a piece of science as possible.”

“It was a very human moment for the beginning of the project.”

Max Planck Institute

HOW THEY STAYED CONNECTED — Because so many of the authors weren’t able to meet in person, a lot of the detective work behind the project was done via email, video presentations, and over WhatsApp.

WhatsApp was especially useful as they were extracting the body from the sediment block. Martinón-Torres knew there were two human teeth on the surface, but a slow process of excavation (done in person and virtually using a technique called virtual excavation) revealed a mandible. Then, a whole skull and other assorted parts of the skeleton.

After each piece was uncovered, she would WhatsApp a photo to a colleague (often Petraglia). “[I used] WhatsApp to share the heat-of-the-moment discovery,” she says. “It was a very exciting period.”

“This work somehow sets the standard.”

WHAT SHORTHAND DID THEY USE? — Martinón-Torres says the team used unconventional props to solve some of the burial’s mysteries. Rather than a communicated shorthand, this team needed extra help communicating visually.

As Martinón-Torres was performing the excavation, she was constantly trying to interpret the skeleton’s position. The child was lying on its side, but the head was propped up at nearly a right angle. It was hard to wrap her head around how a person could have ended up in such an odd position.

To explain it, she reached for a Pinocchio doll in her office with a detachable head. She placed the doll’s head in the same position as the skull in the sediment, which helped her gain a new perspective.

The head had been propped up by a pillow — a pillow of an unknown material that had long since disintegrated, leaving the skull to be forced upward during thousands of years of soil movement, gravity, and decomposition.

“Having a toy where I could dislocate the head made it very useful to explain,” she says, but it also became a joke within the team. The Pinnochio was re-christened “The PYS-nocchio” (PYS stands for Panga Ya Saidi).

“Having a toy where I could dislocate the head made [the positioning] very useful to explain.”

Max Planck Institute

SO, DID THEY ACHIEVE IT? — To prove the child had been buried intentionally, the team had to prove two things:

  1. That the grave had been dug deliberately.
  2. That the body had been intentionally placed there and covered.

Emails and video calls flew back and forth across countries, with Martinón-Torres, Patraglia, and Ndiema coordinating. “There were many, many different lines of evidence, which are a bit like in a forensic case,” says Martinón-Torres.

Each expert solved their own part of the equation.

For instance, soil experts proved the composition of soil on top of the pit was different from the soil surrounding it (something you might see when fresh soil is piled on top of a grave). Chemists were able to reveal that the sediment contained signs of manganese oxide and calcium oxide, elements that are typically liberated as bacteria aid in body decomposition. Insect experts noticed star-shaped marks and holes in the skull, evidence that insects had found a fleshy body left there to decompose in place.

In 2019, Martinón-Torres marshaled all her evidence and presented it to the team. At this point, she believed it was an intentional burial and, after the presentation, her colleagues seemed to agree. “That, for me, was a very exciting moment, because I knew it wasn’t just me,” she says. “I was looking at the child every day, and I hadn’t made up the story in my head. It was fitting very well.”

There is evidence of older burials around the world in Eurasia, even among other species, like Neanderthals, who may have even buried their dead with ornamental flowers.

This find, however, is the first to show intentional burial in Africa. It’s a sign, Martinón-Torres says, that elsewhere in the ancient world, our ancestors were ruminating about the big ideas we still think about today: life, death, and love for our children.

“Everyone [did] their thing to make this as tight and as robust of a piece of science as possible.”

Max Planck Institute

WHAT’S NEXT — Petraglia suspects there may be many more undiscovered people or artifacts at Panga Ya Saidi. The vast network of caves is still relatively unexplored. Though fieldwork is on hold right now, they’re nowhere near done.

“We've been excavating for years, but it's a gigantic cave site, but there's also other caves in the area, and we have not even tested those,” Petraglia says. “I would expect you could literally spend decades excavating this cave and make new discoveries.”

Meanwhile, the child buried at Panga Ya Saidi has finally come back home after a years-long journey from Kenya to Germany to Spain. The remains of the child once buried at Panga Ya Saidi are back at Kenya’s National Museums, tucked away in a location that Petraglia calls “the vault.” Inside the vault are some of the most seminal archaeological finds in human history, like the Turkana boy, the 1.6 million-year-old skeleton of a Homo Erectus boy, one of the many lineages of ancient hominin that paved the way for modern humanity.

After a whirlwind tour, the child at Panga Ya Saidi will spend eternity in very good company.

DREAM TEAMS is a series from Inverse that takes a look back at the greatest team efforts of the 21st century and what they mean for our ability to collaborate in the future.

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