Oldest Murder Victim Discovered?

Violence seems to be nothing new to humanity but evidence of a 430,000 years old murder is quite unusual. A paper published earlier this month (May 2015) has announced the discovery of a prehistoric murder victim from the Sima de los Huesos site in northern Spain.

Photo of damaged Cranium 17. Credit: Javier Trueba / Madrid Scientific Films; CC-BY

This site has long been known for its impressive collection of Neanderthal bones, dated to the Middle Pleistocene, of which at least 28 individuals have so far been identified. The site itself is somewhat strange. The bones were all found in an underground cave complex, which might not sound unusual, but that cave system was only accessible at the time via a 13 metre deep vertical shaft, and exactly how all the hominin remains came to be down there is still somewhat mysterious. Several explanations have been proposed, such as the bones having been washed in the caves by floods, or else dragged there by animals. They may have fallen in accidentally, and of course there is the possibility that they were deliberately dumped by their fellow hominins. Recent studies of the local geology have suggested that the bones were not assembled in their present location by the actions of water, judging by the types of sediment surrounding them. Similarly the lack of tooth marks on any of the bones would seem to rule out predators as a possible culprit.

This sets the scene for the new find. The bone in question is a nearly complete skull – called Cranium 17 – which was reconstructed from 52 fragments. This restored the entire face and revealed some very suspicious damage to the front of the cranium. Just above the left eye are two holes; partially overlapping and completely penetrating the bone. The question of course is when and how were these wounds inflicted? To answer this question the research team CT scanned the skull in order to make a computer model which could be analysed, and they then applied some modern forensic techniques to determine the trajectory and strength of the impacts that caused the lesions. The results suggested to the researchers that the wounds were caused by two separate impacts from the same object. This is significant because it strongly suggests that these injuries were not caused accidentally. One skull fracture could have been caused when the body fell down the shaft, or else when a later rock-fall fell onto the skeleton, but it is difficult to imagine a scenario when the same rock could strike the skull twice accidentally.

So was Cranium 17 murdered and then dumped into the shaft? The first thing to note is that there is no evidence of bone healing, which means that if the wound was inflicted before death then the individual probably died almost immediately. The study also concluded that the regular size and shape of the two lesions suggested they were not caused accidentally but instead by a tool of standardised size and shape (rather then say a random rock). Even more interestingly the position of the damage, just over the left eye, is consistent with the wound pattern found throughout human history whereby skull injuries inflicted in face-to-face combat tend to be concentrated on the left side because most people are right handed. This is particularly fascinating when you consider that there is already, independent, evidence that most of the individuals found at Sima de los Huesos were indeed right handed. In light of all this evidence, particularly the fact that Cranium 17 was already dead before entering the shaft, it seems very likely that the body was dropped into the cave by another individual. However, it is impossible to say if that individual was the one who killed Cranium 17, or whether this might actually represent a very early form of burial practise.

Reference: Sala, N. et al. 2015. Lethal Interpersonal Violence in the Middle Pleistocene. PlosOne. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0126589

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