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

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.

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.
/ Atapuerca Research Team
Atapuerca Research Team
The team of scientists used 3-D imaging to re-create the injuries.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sam worked at Vermont Public Radio from October 1978 to September 2017 in various capacities – almost always involving audio engineering. He excels at sound engineering for live performances.
Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.