Contrary to popular belief, the people who roamed north Africa in prehistoric times cared deeply for their children, recent discoveries by a team of Moroccan and British archaeologists show.
"For years these people have wrongly been thought of as individuals whose only wish was to eat, reproduce, and protect themselves from the elements and predators," said Abdeljalil Bouzouggar of Morocco's Institute of Archaeology and Heritage.
"Now we discover that 12000 years ago they granted their babies the same rights as adults."
Bouzouggar jointly led a team that excavated a cave at Taforalt in eastern Morocco earlier this year along with Nick Barton of Britain's Oxford University.
The cave was used as a burial ground by the Iberomaurusian people, who lived in the Iberian Peninsula and Mahgreb.
The cave, which in Paleolithic times was one of the biggest burial sites in Africa, had several blue stones. On lifting them, the archaeologists discovered the bones of newborns who had been covered with red ochre.
Bouzouggar said the special blue-coloured limestone rocks had come from a plain 15km away and had been specifically brought to the cave in the mountainous region.
"We can't rule out the possibility that the stones were placed as markers to indicate the graves of children," he added.
Louise Humphrey, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, said four tombs had been discovered, two of which were excavated.
"The infants were carefully buried in a seated or reclining position," she told AFP. "The stones were deliberately placed above the bodies and may have served as grave markers. The careful burial ritual suggests that the infants were a valued part of their community."
A strong sense of community
Another sign of the special care given to infants was that none of the bones had been disturbed unlike those of the adults.
"We discovered that sometimes, to make room, they moved the bones from older graves, but never those of newborns. No grave of an infant has been disturbed," said Bouzouggar, who interpreted this as a sign of respect.
The two experts dismissed any suggestion that the children had been sacrificed.
"There is no evidence to suggest that the infants were sacrificed no signs of violence for example," said Humphrey.
"My feeling is that they died naturally and were grieved, and buried in a way similar to that of older members of the community."
For archaeologists, the discovery contains a wealth of information that sheds new light on the lifestyle and behaviour of the prehistoric people who inhabited the region.
"The infant skeletons are exceptionally complete and well preserved and will allow us to undertake studies of infant health, growth and diet," Humphrey said.
"The adult skeletons will reveal information on illnesses and injuries, diet and activity patterns."
The researchers said the burial site indicated a strong sense of community and contained the remains of people from all kinds of classes.
One of the graves belonged to a 16-year-old from a very high social rank.
The horns of a large animal as well as personal objects and tools were arranged on both sides of his skeleton.
"We may never know how these humans hunted, how they reproduced, how they behaved with their family, but these graves are an invaluable source of information," Bouzouggar said.
"Indeed, some deaths were more honoured than others. The graves represent a whole life. From the dead, we can see the world of those who were alive at this time."