Double blow to skull is earliest evidence of murder, a 430,000-year-old whodunit

Fossil reconstruction gives hints on how to get away with homicide, Pleistocene-style

Cranium 17

FOUL PLAY  Cranium 17 was pieced together from 52 bone fragments fished from Spain’s Sima de los Huesos cave. Dating back 430,000 years, the skull exhibits signs of two traumatic injuries above the left eye, at least one of which proved fatal.

Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films

It’s a classic murder mystery: no motive, no weapon, no suspect. Just a body, dumped in a remote location with fatal head injuries. It would be standard fare for an episode of CSI — except that it happened 430,000 years ago. That makes it the earliest documented case of homicide, researchers report May 27 in PLOS ONE.

The victim spent almost half a million years entombed in an underground cavern called Sima de los Huesos, or “Pit of Bones,” in northern Spain. Since the 1970s, researchers have unearthed nearly 7,000 bone fragments from at least 28 individuals of the Homo genus (SN: 7/26/14, p. 8). And now they’ve uncovered the first evidence of foul play.

A skull known as Cranium 17 belonged to an otherwise healthy young adult who died from wounds that left two gaping forehead holes, says Nohemi Sala, a paleontologist at the Centro Mixto UCM-ISCIII de Evolución y Comportamiento Humanos in Madrid. Sala’s team pieced together 52 bone fragments from Cranium 17 to create a 3-D model of the skull. Then the team analyzed the fractures above the left eye to determine whether someone had it in for the victim.

The two holes are nearly identical in shape and size, suggesting multiple blows from the same weapon and a clear intention to kill. By calculating the trajectories, the researchers determined that the blows flew from two different directions. It’s hard to imagine that happening by accident, like in a fall, says Jörg Orschiedt, an archaeologist at the Free University of Berlin who was not involved in the study.

Although ancient members of the human evolutionary family suffered plenty of injuries — usually from mishaps or predators — prehistoric homicide appears to have been rare, says Haagen Klaus, an anthropologist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. The new discovery marks just the third potential murder case of the Pleistocene epoch, which ran from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago. “If such violence was more frequent, then we would expect to see more evidence of it,” Klaus says.

However, Sala says it’s challenging to find definitive proof of murder in the archaeological record. “We are not saying that this is the first time that it happened,” she says. “This is the first time we can actually be sure.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated June 9, 2015, to clarify in the second paragraph that the hominid bones, not the cave, were discovered in the 1970s. The caves in this region were discovered in the 1800s.

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