Planet Earth

The Ancient Tomb of a Young Child

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When humans left Africa to spread out across the world 100,000 years ago, they probably passed through the Nile Valley of Egypt. No skeletons from this time have been found in the area, however, leaving researchers at a loss as to how humans in this important gateway region compared with those in southwestern Asia and in eastern and southern Africa. Now a Belgian archeological team has found the skeleton of a child in the Nile Valley of southern Egypt that may be as much as 80,000 years old. The site may well be Africa's oldest intentional burial.

Pierre Vermeersch from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium and his colleagues discovered the skeleton at Taramsa Hill. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans and more ancient hominids visited Taramsa to make stone tools, and Vermeersch had been tracking the progress of this industry. People apparently never settled at Taramsa Hill--they merely trekked through on a regular basis, so Vermeersch wasn't expecting to find any human remains. But while excavating a few years ago, he says, "one of our trenches collapsed. And it was in that collapsed trench that by chance we found traces of a skull."

Vermeersch eventually uncovered nearly the entire skeleton of a child resting in a corner of a shallow pit. The child appears to have been carefully positioned. It was seated, facing east, leaning backward, with its head facing up to the sky. Though many stone tools were found near the body, none can be clearly associated with the burial. "We are in a place where they made hundreds of thousands of tools," says Vermeersch, "so everywhere, everything is full of artifacts."

The child was eight to ten years old at death, and Vermeersch isn't sure why he or she died so young. The slender bones and rounded forehead are clearly those of a modern human. The teeth and skull also resemble those of equally old human remains in both East Africa and the Middle East and suggest a connection, Vermeersch says, between these two populations. He plans to move the skeleton to the British Museum for conservation and further study.

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