A frontal view of Cranium 17 showing the position of the traumatic events T1 (inferior) and T2 (superior).

430,000-Year-Old Murder Victim? Researchers Bring to Light First Known Homicide

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A deliberate homicide so old that it predates Homo sapiens has come to light in Spain. Researchers piecing together skulls and skeletons from the Sima de los Huesos (Pit of Bones) cave say one skull from about 430,000 years ago has signs of inflicted wounds.

The authors of a study in the journal PLOS One say the person sustained the fatal wounds in “two episodes of blunt force trauma. The type of injuries, their location, the strong similarity of the fractures in shape and size, and the different orientations and implied trajectories of the two fractures suggest they were produced with the same object in face-to-face interpersonal conflict.”

In other words, someone hit him or her on the head with an object and broke the skull. The individual's sex and even the exact species are unknown. Researchers refer to the person as the Sima de los Huesos hominin. The article says this case is the first known lethal violence in the genus Homo.

Researchers say the differing orientation of the two wounds to the cranium (T1 and T2) indicate there were two blows, which means they were inflicted rather than sustained in an accident.

Researchers say the differing orientation of the two wounds to the cranium (T1 and T2) indicate there were two blows, which means they were inflicted rather than sustained in an accident. ( Photo from the journal PLOS )

“Given that either of the two traumatic events [woundings] was likely lethal, the presence of multiple blows implies an intention to kill. This finding shows that the lethal interpersonal violence is an ancient human behavior and has important implications for the accumulation of bodies at the site, supporting an anthropic origin,” wrote the authors, headed by paleontologist Nohemi Sala of Carlos III Health Institute in Madrid.  The researchers have not ruled out the possibility that the person who died was killed in self-defence.

The cave is in the Atapuerca Mountains. In the cave is a bed of bones that scientists accessed via a vertical chimney. Researchers have been piecing together bones of 28 people, mostly Neanderthals from around 430,000 years ago, since the pit was discovered in 1987. Other skulls had fractures, but these were likely caused by deposition of sediments over time. The hominin also had a post-mortem skull fracture.

The hominin's bones were found in LH6—in a layer of red clay fairly deep

The hominin's bones were found in LH6—in a layer of red clay fairly deep.( PLOS One photo)

Researchers found the skull fragment of the victim in 1990 and pieced it together years later when they found other fragments of it. Two holes were punched through the cranium. Sala, in an article in Live Science , speculated the wounds on the Sima de los Huesos victim may have been inflicted with a wooden spear or a stone hand axe.

The archaeological record rarely reflects such violence leading to death in the Stone Age at any point in its history. There is evidence at other Palaeolithic and Neolithic sites of scraping of bones, a possible but not definite indication of cannibalism.

Signs of trauma on Stone Age skulls is fairly common, though it seems most of the people healed from it and went on to live longer. The only other known deliberate homicides in the Middle and Upper Pleistocene were of a Neanderthal in Iraq, who was apparently stabbed in the side; and a Homo sapiens person in Russia, who hard sharp trauma to the spine, the article says.

“Evidence of interpersonal violence has been documented previously in Pleistocene members of the genus Homo, but only very rarely has this been posited as the possible manner of death. Here we report the earliest evidence of lethal interpersonal violence in the hominin fossil record.”

Violence, the article says, is well-documented since Neolithic or New Stone Age times beginning about 7,000 years ago. Other researchers have found the same thing: Violence really started heating up when there was established territory to defend or because of population density or scarce resources. These conditions arose when people settled down in communities and began farming and when populations increase greatly.

“Interpersonal violence (lethal and nonlethal) in prehistory is of special interest since it provides a window into human social relations in the past,” the authors wrote. “Interpersonal violence can be manifested in different ways in the archaeological record, including trauma on hominin bones, which makes it susceptible to approach these questions in paleoanthropological contexts through the application of modern forensic methods of trauma analysis.”

Featured image: A frontal view of Cranium 17 showing the position of the traumatic events T1 (inferior) and T2 (superior). Credit: Javier Trueba / Madrid Scientific Films.

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