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Analysis of the Cova Foradada Skull has revealed the story of the ancient incident. Source: Rovira i Virgili University (URV)

Solved: The 4000-Year-Old Murder Mystery Of The Cova Foradada Skull

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A murder that took place over 4,000 years ago in Spain’s Cova Foradada Cave has been “solved.” Archaeologists investigating the scene of the brutal murder in the Spanish cave have now used high-tech methods to identify the murder weapon based on forensic evidence related to the Cova Foradada skull.

Violence between people has been documented since Paleolithic times where intentional injuries observed on skeletal remains speak of ancient confrontations, and a range of primitive but highly effective weapons. Fracture patterns often reveal the sizes of the objects that were used as weapons, which are traditionally classified as causing “sharp force” or “blunt force” trauma. However, the more fragmented a cranium is, the more complicated the weapon identification procedure becomes. That’s where high-tech came to the rescue to actually solve the Cova Foradada skull mystery.

The Cova Foradada skull as viewed from different angles. (Image: International Journal of Paleopathology)

The Cova Foradada skull as viewed from different angles. (Image:  International Journal of Paleopathology )

In a new study published in the  International Journal of Paleopathology , and carried out by research staff from the del Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social ( IPHES-CERCA), the  Rovira i Virgili University  (URV) and the University of Barcelona (UB), lead author Dr Miguel Ángel Moreno-Ibáñez looks at “the etiology of trauma.” Highlighting the differences between fracture patterns caused by stone axes and stone adzes, the paper provides new information about the directions from which blows came to better determine the weapons that most likely produced the cranial injuries that are found on Late Neolithic skeletons. The research focuses on the Chalcolithic site of Cova Foradada, in the coastal mountain range of the northeastern Spain, where, in 1999, the intact Cova Foradada skull was unearthed.

 

 

The location of the cave and the cave entrance where the Cova Foradada skull was found. (International Journal of Paleopathology)

The location of the cave and the cave entrance where the Cova Foradada skull was found. ( International Journal of Paleopathology )

The Cova Foradada Skull And Much More Found In A Karst Cave

Cova Foradada is a  karst cave  about 110 meters (360.89 ft) above sea level, and 1,860 meters (6102 ft) from the current coastline. The cave area measures about 14 meters square (151 feet square), with two chambers at different levels. Materials from an 18-person burial discovered in the upper levels of the cave were  radiocarbon dated  to between 5060–4400 years BP (before present). This period, which lasted from 5500 to 4300 BP, is known as the Late Neolithic-Chalcolithic era in the northeastern Iberian Peninsula.

Archaeologists recovered 1332 bone fragments from the site that are described in the paper as “disarticulated” and “highly fractured,” as they had been pulled apart by  carnivores over the years. 

However, the new study focuses on the complete Cova Foradada skull cranium discovered in 1999 AD that displays two main types of  trauma: blunt force trauma (BFT) and sharp force trauma (SFT). The cranium belongs to a man who was older than 50 years of age when he died. A 31 × 29 mm (1.22 in X 1.14 in) fracture on the right parietal bone of the skull had never healed. The Cova Foradada skull also had two further healed lesions.

The researchers say cranial trauma is of particular interest considering “the head is the main target for an attack when the intention is to kill,” and that the main wound likely represents “ interpersonal violence  that potentially contributed to the cause of death for the individual.”

Location of cranial trauma on the Cova Foradada skull with respect to the hat brim line: (A) perimortem parietal fracture; (B) antemortem occipital fracture, on the opposite side; and (C) antemortem temporal lesion. (International Journal of Paleopathology)

Location of cranial trauma on the Cova Foradada skull with respect to the hat brim line: (A) perimortem parietal fracture; (B) antemortem occipital fracture, on the opposite side; and (C) antemortem temporal lesion. ( International Journal of Paleopathology )

The Cova Foradada Skull: Finding The Ancient Murder Weapon

The damage caused by the blow in the lower occipital region is known as “a dry fracture,” which the scientists explain is different from “a perimortem fracture,” one caused while the victim was still alive. The latter is indicated by green and dry bones with “brittle mechanical properties.” The analysis of the Cova Foradada skull revealed that the blow at the top of the cranial vault indicated “intentional or accidental trauma, by a narrow object or protruding edge.” 

The researchers say that during the  Neolithic-Chalcolithic period a range of blunt objects were used as tools but also identified as lethal weapons. The main Cova Foradada skull wound was not caused by “knives or swords.” Rather, the Cova Foradada skull was fractured through blunt force trauma with an object with “a straight and sharp edge, such as that of a stone axe or  adze.” Supporting this idea, the paper refers to a large stone axe made from hornfels that was found in the Cova Foradada burial site, which was probably the  murder weapon .

This stone axe head, found in the same cave as the Cova Foradada skull, was probably the murder weapon. (International Journal of Paleopathology)

This stone axe head, found in the same cave as the Cova Foradada skull, was probably the murder weapon. ( International Journal of Paleopathology )

Ancient Tools Were Also Ancient Murder Weapons

The new study says that the marks left on bones from horizontally hafted adzes and a vertically hafted axe differ at the point of impact. They go further to say that the wounds on the Cova Foradada skull represent “the longitudinal axis of the object producing the blow.”

Based on the dimensions of the point of impact, the stone adze used in this murder was small, with an edge of around 3 centimeters (1.2 in). It was swung from behind the victim, but it never completely penetrated the cranium. After the initial blow, the attacker wrenched his weapon from the broken skull of the victim, as he stood over him.

In conclusion, the wound on the ancient man’s cranium discovered in the Cova Foradada cave was caused while he was still alive, during “an episode of interpersonal violence,” according to the researchers. It was caused by one single impact with a straight and narrow edged blunt object, most probably a stone adze. Apparently, stone axes were the most common tool, which also served as weapons, in the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods.

Top image: Analysis of the Cova Foradada Skull has revealed the story of the ancient incident. Source:  Rovira i Virgili University (URV) 

By Ashley Cowie

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