Scientists Discover Evidence Of A 435,000-Year-Old Murder

Scientists Discover Evidence Of A 435,000-Year-Old Murder

9:01pm May 28, 2015
A team of scientists say they've discovered evidence of a 435,000 year old murder, based on evidence from the injuries on this skull.
A team of scientists say they've discovered evidence of a 435,000 year old murder, based on evidence from the injuries on this skull.
Javier Trueba / Madrid Scientific Films
  • A team of scientists say they've discovered evidence of a 435,000 year old murder, based on evidence from the injuries on this skull.

    A team of scientists say they've discovered evidence of a 435,000 year old murder, based on evidence from the injuries on this skull.

    Javier Trueba / Madrid Scientific Films

  • The team of scientists used 3-D imaging to re-create the injuries.

    The team of scientists used 3-D imaging to re-create the injuries.

    Atapuerca Research Team

A team of scientists say they've discovered evidence of a 435,000 year old murder, based on evidence from the injuries on this skull.

A team of scientists say they've discovered evidence of a 435,000 year old murder, based on evidence from the injuries on this skull.

Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films

Two episodes of "localized blunt force trauma" to the skull with "an intention to kill." 3-D imaging to re-create the injuries. Bodies dropped down a 43-foot-deep vertical shaft into a mass grave. A murder case — more than 435,000 years old.

It's all detailed in a study in the journal PLOS One called "Lethal Interpersonal Violence in the Middle Pleistocene," and its authors say it's evidence of one of the earliest murders on record.

One of the authors of the study, Rolf Quam of Binghamton University, spoke with NPR and said the evidence they found, which includes a skull reconstructed from about 50 fragments, clearly points toward murder. Two major injuries on that skull, above the left eye, couldn't have both happened unintentionally.

"The fact that there are two of these fractures in the frontal bone seems to imply a pretty clear intention to kill," Quam said. "There's no sign of healing of the fractures, the edges show oblique angles, all indicating that this is clearly something that occurred while the bone was still fresh, and we believe, a murder." Basically, the evidence suggests the wounds occurred while the body was still living. As part of the study, Quam and his team used 3-D imaging to create a virtual reconstruction of the cranium and its injuries.

The study doesn't just show evidence of a murder hundreds of thousands of years old; it also points toward early use of a primitive cemetery.

The skull in question was found at a site in Spain called Sima de los Huesos, or the Pit of the Bones, and it contained remains of 28 individuals. Quam said their presence there was intentional. "The only explanation that we have that can not be rejected is the idea that the human bodies arrived at this place by other humans," Quam told NPR.

The team of scientists used 3-D imaging to re-create the injuries.

The team of scientists used 3-D imaging to re-create the injuries.

Atapuerca Research Team

He says the bodies were deliberately dropped down a deep shaft into this mass grave. "That other humans went to the top of this vertical shaft and deposited dead members of their social group down into the site, and in this way formed a kind of primitive cemetery or kind of an early manifestation of funerary practices," Quam said. "Clearly this is an intentional human disposal of the dead."

Quam says he and his collaborators weren't looking to find what they did. "We were not thinking at all that we were going to identify an early case of murder," said Quam. "We were trying to understand the geological history of the site and the taphonomic history of the fossils themselves, to better understand how the site was formed."

Quam pointed out that the fossils in question aren't exactly human, but they are close, ancestors of the Neanderthals. He called them "human ancestors, not chimpanzees, not apes." Quam continued, "These are a different form of humanity that lives on the planet before we evolved. They're clearly human-like. I tend to think of them as humans."

And because of that, he said, his study points to a universal, and possibly timeless truth. "Murder is an ancient feature of humanity."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Scientists have discovered evidence of what they think might be the earliest-known murder. This is based on injuries to a skull from the Pleistocene era. It was found in a mass grave known as the Pit of the Bones in Spain. NPR's Sam Sanders has the story.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Episodes of localized blunt-force trauma to the skull, an intent to kill, 3-D imaging to re-create the injuries, a homicide that's 435,000 years old.

ROLF QUAM: What we have is an example of an individual who was attacked with an object by another human, and they suffered two lethal blows to the front of the skull.

SANDERS: That's Rolf Quam. He's a professor at Binghamton University and part of the team that found that skull. He says the evidence is clear.

QUAM: The fact that there are two of these fractures on the frontal bone seems to imply a pretty clear intention to kill.

SANDERS: A murder.

QUAM: A murder.

SANDERS: Or intentional interpersonal violence - that's what it's called in the study. Danielle Kurin says what you call it matters.

DANIELLE KURIN: So I think there's clear evidence here for lethal trauma which caused death. Now, is this actually a case of murder? I don't think so.

SANDERS: Kurin studies bio-archaeology at the University of California Santa Barbara. She wasn't involved in the study, but she says there's a lot about this case we just don't know.

KURIN: We could call it, perhaps, self-defense. We could call it a fit of rage or passion. Why do people hurt each other? Food, water, women, men - yeah, sure - but was the intention to hurt someone, or was it to kill someone?

SANDERS: Well, the researchers say they do know that the body was buried - dropped down a 43-foot shaft into a mass grave. And that shows that even pre-humans - this skull was from an ancestor of the Neanderthal - even they took time to bury their dead. Kurin says that raises some bigger questions.

KURIN: Why are we, as modern humans, unique? You know, we used to think, well, we bury our dead. That's what makes us human. Well, now we see that's not true. We can construct, you know, murderous intent. Well, that may not be the case either anymore.

SANDERS: The study of this skull, this maybe-murder, this burial, it appears in the journal PLOS One. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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