Modern Forensics Reveal 33,000-Year-Old Skull Was Bashed In With Murderous Intent

Credit: Kranoti et al, 2019

Rosie McCall 04 Jul 2019, 12:57

This skull might just be evidence of the very first (known) murder case.

The damaged bone was discovered in 1941 but the cause of its fractures have remained a mystery to archaeologists – was it caused by mishandling? A fallen piece of cave rock? Murder? Using modern forensic techniques, scientists writing in PLOS ONE have been able to crack the cold case and finally determine the cause of death of this 33,000-year-old early modern man: homicide. 

When the skull was first found – incidentally, during World War II, in a cave in Transylvania, in Romania by miners on the lookout for phosphate – scientists made no mention of the two (quite large) fractures that scarred its righthand side, one linear fracture at the base of the skull and one depressed fracture on the right side of the cranial vault. Since then, the source of these fractures has been heavily debated. Yet, no conclusions have been made. Until now.

Using modern forensic techniques, a small team of international researchers recreated various trauma-inducing circumstances, using twelve synthetic bone spheres, artificial skulls filled with ballistic gelatin, and simulations of several scenarios, including single and double blows from different weapons (namely: rocks and bats) and falls from assorted heights. 

Using CT scans, the researchers had been able to rule out injury sustained before death (a severe lack of healing indicators around the fractures show the man did not recover from the injuries before dying) and injury sustained after death (the fracture patterns of "old" bone would look different from the fracture patterns of "living" bone). 

The results suggest the marks on the skull most closely match the pattern of injury suffered from successive blows to the head with a bat-like object. What's more, the positioning of the fractures, suggest that the victim came face-to-face with his attacker (or attackers), who the researchers think may have been holding the Stone Age "bat" with their left hand. 

In sum: the injury was not accidental. It was not the result of post-mortem damage or a fall, but violent action. And while the researchers point out that we do not have access to the rest of the skeleton and, therefore, it may be possible that other (possibly fatal) injuries were sustained elsewhere, the evidence we do have would imply a willful act of violence – a prehistoric example of homicide. 

"The Upper Paleolithic was a time of increasing cultural complexity and technological sophistication," the study authors said in a press release

"Our work shows that violent interpersonal behavior and murder was also part of the behavioral repertoire of these early modern Europeans."

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