New Historian

Oldest Murder Victim Discovered

A Neanderthal skull discovered in the Sima de los Huesos cave in Spain

<![CDATA[A Neanderthal skull bearing marks of lethal trauma inflicted deliberately by another individual has been discovered in a cave in Spain. The fossil has been dated to 430,000 years ago, or the Middle Pleistocene, and was found along with the partial remains of at least 28 other individuals, the authors of a study titled “Lethal Interpersonal Violence in the Middle Pleistocene” report in the PLOS ONE journal. What makes the find particularly interesting is the fact that it is the earliest known example of murder, taking place much earlier than the appearance of the Homo genus on the world scene. The proof that the Neanderthal’s death was the result of deliberate injury can be seen in the presence of two nearly identical fractures to the frontal skull bone of the individual. Examination of the fractures revealed that they had been inflicted with one weapon and the trajectory that could be inferred from their shape and size told scientists that this weapon had been used in a close, face-to-face, conflict. Moreover, the authors say, the fact that there is more than one fracture, given that the severity of each of them would have been lethal, suggests “an intention to kill.” The major conclusion of the analysis was that intentional killings were part of our ancestors’ lives, something for which there has not been abundant evidence from this period of pre-human history. According to the authors, any insight into early hominin violence is of interest because it sheds light on the relations within communities and between different communities with regard to resources and their distribution, the density of the population, and the distribution of land. The authors also note in their paper that up until now there has been no evidence of “direct traumatic injury” in hominins from the Middle Pleistocene, although there has been previous evidence of non-fatal injuries and cannibalism. There is also abundant evidence from the Middle and Upper Pleistocene of skull trauma, although the sufferers survived in the majority of cases. In fact, only two fossils have been discovered that could be said to have belonged to people who died violent deaths, but not with a high degree of certainty, the PLOS ONE paper authors write. One of these two fossils has a lesion on one of the ribs but the shape of the bone actually suggests he lived for a few weeks after the injury was inflicted, so it cannot be established whether the lesion was the real, or only, cause of death. The other fossil shows signs of severe trauma to the first thoracic vertebra, which has been taken as the cause of this individual’s death, but it is unclear whether this trauma was caused by the deliberate actions of another hominin or was the result of an accident, while hunting, for example. It is the scarcity of fossils bearing the clear marks of an intentional death that makes the Spanish find so precious for the scientific community. It might also provide clues as to why there were so many people in this cave, which, at the time, could only be accessed through a 13-metre high chimney. Two of the hypothesis put forward so far have been ruled out, namely predators or geological activity dragging the bodies there. The two remaining hypotheses have to do with accidental falls and intentional killings. These latest findings could support the latter hypothesis. For more information: Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: Jose-Manuel Benito]]>

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