Attack of the Ancestor: Neandertals took a stab at violent assaults

Like a gruesome jigsaw puzzle, the pieced-together fragments of a 36,000-year-old Neandertal skull reveal a bony scar caused by a blow from a sharp tool or weapon, according to a new study.

A CUT ABOVE. Neandertal, drawn from a reassembled skull, received a blow on the top of his head from a sharp implement. Zollikofer/PNAS

The Stone Age attack victim, probably a male in his 20s, survived his close scrape thanks to nursing from compatriots, conclude anthropologist Christoph P.E. Zollikofer of the University of Zurich, Switzerland, and his colleagues. Many millennia later, the victim’s rebuilt noggin represents the oldest solid evidence of violence inflicted by one member of the human evolutionary family on another, the scientists propose in the April 30 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Neandertals used stone implements not only for hunting and food processing but, depending on the context, for inflicting wounds,” Zollikofer says.

The reassembled Neandertal skull comes from a partial skeleton discovered in 1979 near the French village of St. Césaire. Substantial flattening of the braincase had occurred during fossilization of the specimen.

A computer reconstruction of the skull corrected for that bone warping. The virtual perspective revealed a healed fracture 2 inches long on the top of the cranium. A stone blade or a comparably sharp object slashed the scalp and bone, presumably during a fight or violent attack, Zollikofer asserts.

It’s unlikely that this injury happened by accident, he adds. Wounds from falls or hunting mishaps typically occur on the side of the head.

“It looks like there was a violent squabble,” remarks anthropologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis, who has seen the new evidence. “The wound would have caused a lot of bleeding and a big headache, but it wouldn’t have directly affected the brain.”

Undisputed skeleton evidence of violence among Homo sapiens dates to no more than around 13,000 years ago, Trinkaus says. A Neandertal skeleton found in an Iraqi cave represents a more controversial example of Stone Age fighting, he says. The specimen, estimated to be at least 50,000 years old, displays a cut on a left rib.

Milford Wolpoff of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor counters that many early Homo fossils, including those of Neandertals, exhibit fractures from intentional blows. Neandertal fossils found at a 130,000-year-old Czech Republic site and 200,000-year-old Homo erectus skulls from Java display wounds similar to the French find, he says.

The French skull attests to Neandertals’ willingness to care for wounded comrades, Zollikofer says (SN: 9/15/01,

p. 167: Neandertals show ancient signs of caring). Bone healing after an injury of this type becomes visible only after several weeks. Zollikofer argues that without assistance from others, the victim would not have lived that long.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

More Stories from Science News on Anthropology