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World's Oldest Murder Mystery Was Discovered

It's a whodunit that dates back 430,000 years. Deep in a cave in northern Spain, archaeologists have uncovered fragments of a skull with protruding eyebrow ridges and a smaller brain area than you would find in a modern-day human. Researchers say it belongs to an early human relative that predates even the Neanderthals.

It took scientists years to reconstruct the ancient cranium from 52 bits of bone, each about the size of a quarter. But when they finally did, they noticed something strange: The skull had two holes just left of the center of the forehead.

The pattern of fractures revealed that the bone broke while still enmeshed in living tissue. It was also clear the victim, probably a male in his early 20s, could not have survived long after the blows were inflicted.

The two wounds were almost identical, and could not have been caused by a fall, an attack by a predator or an accidental collision with a tree or rock, the archaeologists said. And so they came to a dark conclusion: This ancient skull is evidence of the earliest known murder among our ancestors.

Cause of death:

To figure out whether the skull fractures resulted from blows or from the fall down the cave shaft, the team compared the injuries to those from modern cases of violence and falls. A face-to-face attack with a blunt instrument best fits the pattern of injury, the scientists say. The bones showed no evidence of healing, so the victim probably died immediately or soon after the attack. 

What’s more, the two holes in the skull are the same shape and appear to have been made by the same weapon. It’s very unlikely that an accidental fall onto a rock would produce two nearly identical skull fractures, the team says.

The weapon:

Sala says the weapon was probably “something very hard,” but we’ll never know if it was made of wood or rock, or something else.
The scientists scoured the site, she says, but didn’t turn up any potential murder weapons. There was only stone tool found at the site, and it wasn’t the right shape.

The motive:

Another unsolved mystery: what drove an ancient person to kill. “Life was hard in the past,” Sala says, so there could have conflicts over resources or any number of reasons for a fight.
Even with difficult lives, though, Sala describes the Sima de los Huesos people as caring for one another. “There were 28 individuals at the site of different ages,” she says. “We know that some of these people had health problems. One person had very serious pathology in the lower back and probably had troule walking and moving.” Someone had to be caring for these people before their deaths, she says.
And while it might not sound like a lovely funeral today, the fact that people living at the site buried bodies by dropping them down the same shaft indicates some sense of ceremonial burial or ritual—the dead weren’t merely dragged away from the campsite to decay.
Overall, the site paints a picture of ancient people who lived, loved—and sometimes fought—together.
Sala’s take on life with Homo heidelbergensis: “They’re not so bad—at least they have also good points.”


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