"Long before it's in the papers"
May 28, 2015


The oldest evidence of murder?

May 28, 2015
Courtesy of PLoS
and World Science staff

Le­thal wounds iden­ti­fied on a Ne­an­der­thal hu­man skull may point to the most an­cient ev­i­dence of mur­der, some 430,000 years ago, sci­en­tists say.

It’s “the ear­li­est ev­i­dence of le­thal in­ter­per­son­al vi­o­lence in the ho­minin fos­sil record,” wrote the au­thors of a re­port on the find­ings, pub­lished May 27 in the re­search jour­nal PLoS One. Ho­minins are an ev­o­lu­tion­ary line­age con­sist­ing of mod­ern hu­mans, ex­tinct hu­man spe­cies such as Ne­an­der­thals, and our im­me­di­ate an­ces­tors.

The fossil known as Cranium 17 (Credit: Javier Trueba / Madrid Scientific Films)

The dam­age to the per­son’s skull could have oc­curred af­ter death, the re­search­ers added, but seems to have oc­curred around the same time.

The ar­che­o­logi­cal site that yielded the skull, Si­ma de los Hue­sos in north­ern Spain, lies deep with­in an un­der­ground cave sys­tem and con­tains bones of at least 28 peo­ple dat­ing to an era known as the Mid­dle Pleis­to­cene.

The only ac­cess to the site is through a 13-meter (14-yard) deep ver­ti­cal shaft. How the bod­ies got there is a mys­tery, though the site may have had a fune­rary pur­pose, said the study au­thors, in­clud­ing No­hemi Sala of the Cen­tro Mixto UCM-ISCIII de Evolu­ción y Com­por­tamiento Hu­ma­nos in Spain.

The study fo­cused on a nearly com­plete skull known as Cra­ni­um 17. It con­sists of 52 frag­ments re­cov­ered over the last 20 years, the re­search­ers said, and shows “two pen­e­trat­ing le­sions” above the left eye. 

Us­ing mod­ern fo­ren­sic tech­niques, such as con­tour and tra­jec­to­ry anal­y­sis of the dam­age, the au­thors con­clud­ed that both frac­tures likely re­sulted from two sep­a­rate im­pacts by the same ob­ject, with slightly dif­fer­ent tra­jec­to­ries around the time of the per­son’s death. 

Ac­cord­ing to the au­thors, the in­ju­ries are un­likely to be the re­sult of an ac­ci­den­tal fall down the shaft. Rath­er, their type and loca­t­ion sug­gest ag­gres­sion. “Given that ei­ther of the two trau­mat­ic events was likely le­thal, the pres­ence of mul­ti­ple blows im­plies an in­ten­tion to kil­l,” they wrote. “This find­ing shows that the le­thal in­ter­per­son­al vi­o­lence is an an­cient hu­man be­hav­ior.”

Ev­i­dence of can­ni­bal­ism in the form of “cut marks” was ab­sent from Cra­ni­um 17 or oth­er bones at the site, they wrote. Nor does Cranium 17 show evidence of an animal attack, such as tooth marks, they added.

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Lethal wounds identified on a Neanderthal human skull may point to the most ancient evidence of murder, some 430,000 years ago, scientists say. It’s “the earliest evidence of lethal interpersonal violence in the hominin fossil record,” wrote the authors of a report on the findings, published May 27 in the research journal PLoS One. Hominins are an evolutionary lineage consisting of modern humans, extinct human species such as Neanderthals, and our immediate ancestors. The damage to the person’s skull could have occurred after death, the researchers added, but seems to have occurred somewhere around the same time. The archeological site that yielded the skull, Sima de los Huesos in northern Spain, lies deep within an underground cave system and contains bones of at least 28 people dating to an era known as the Middle Pleistocene. The only access to the site is through a 13-meter (14-yard) deep vertical shaft. How the bodies got there is a mystery, though it may have had a funerary purpose, said the study authors, including Nohemi Sala of the Centro Mixto UCM-ISCIII de Evolución y Comportamiento Humanos in Spain. The study focused on a nearly complete skull known as Cranium 17. It consists of 52 fragments recovered over the last 20 years, the researchers said, and shows “two penetrating lesions” above the left eye. Using modern forensic techniques, such as contour and trajectory analysis of the damage, the authors concluded that both fractures likely resulted from two separate impacts by the same object, with slightly different trajectories around the time of the person’s death. According to the authors, the injuries are unlikely to be the result of an accidental fall down the shaft. Rather, their type and location suggest aggression. “Given that either of the two traumatic events was likely lethal, the presence of multiple blows implies an intention to kill,” they wrote. “This finding shows that the lethal interpersonal violence is an ancient human behavior.” Evidence of cannibalism in the form of “cut marks” was absent from Cranium 17 or other bones at the site, they wrote. “No evidence of carnivore manipulation, such as tooth marks, is present on this specimen,” they added.