A wound on a 430,000-year-old skull may be the brutal evidence of one of the first cases of murder in the hominin fossil record. The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, analyzed the remains of 28 individuals in a Spanish cave site and found further evidence for early funereal practices.
The site—known as Sima de los Huesos—has puzzled archeologists for many years. No one really knows how the remains of the 28 individuals, which belong to a Neanderthal clade, got there in the first place. The remains of the individuals date back to the Middle Pleistocene. Researchers went to the Sima de los Huesos, found within an underground cave system, to investigate the mystery and were ‘surprised’ by the results.
Nohemi Sala and her research team found a nearly complete skull—Cranium 17—with two penetrating wounds above the left eye. Using modern forensics, researchers interpreted the findings as evidence of blunt force trauma, which occurred around the time of death of the individual.
“The fact that both wounds are very similar in size and shape, including the presence of a ‘notch’ at a similar location in the outlines of both fractures, suggests both were caused by the same object. Since either of these wounds would likely have been lethal, penetrating the brain, the presence of multiple wounds implies an intention to kill,” Sala tells IFLScience.
The origin of the accumulation of the bodies in Sima de los Huesos has been highly debated, with researchers proposing four different hypotheses: carnivore activity, transport by geological agents, accidental falls, and intentional accumulation of bodies by hominins. Recent taphonomic studies have already ruled out carnivore activity and geological processes. The study analyzed the possibility of the other two scenarios.
The only access to the site is down a deep vertical chimney, and there is no way out once you are at the bottom of the shaft. The study suggests the individual represented by Cr-17 was already dead before arrival at the site and “the only possible manner by which a deceased individual could have arrived at the site is if its cadaver were dropped down the shaft by other hominins,” Sala tells IFLScience.
Sala and her research team rule out an accidental fall as a possible explanation for Cr-17's death, as the lethal wounds were caused by two blows from the same object. She says the type and location of the injuries make an accidental fall a highly ‘improbable’ scenario.
“We never thought we could find such clear evidence that would allow us to definitively solve the mystery of the Sima de los Huesos site formation. This finding implies that the Sima de los Huesos site represents the earliest funerary behavior in the hominin fossil record…And the oldest case of a violent murder,” Sala says.
Professor Dr. Christoph P. E. Zollikofer of the Anthropological Institute at the University of Zurich remains wary of the findings, particularly the forensic inference, suggesting that the researchers make “far-reaching claims.”
“The logic of inference has several gaps and is guided by the anticipated result rather than by observed patterns,” he tells IFLScience.
Sala and her research team will continue to investigate some open questions regarding the Sima de los Huesos, and compare it with other Pleistocene contexts.