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The First Murder

Archeologists uncovered the earliest recorded murder victim in Spain’s "Pit of the Bones."
May 27, 2015, 6:00pm
Image: Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films

We may have been hunter-gatherers, but by the middle Pleistocene, hominids were also murderers. In a paper just published in the journal just published in the journal PLOS One, a team of archeologists explain why they believe a 430,000-year-old skull found in northern Spain is the now the oldest—and therefore coldest—case of murder yet found.

Belonging to a close relative of the later Neanderthals, "Cranium 17" was found with 27 other bodies that had, long ago, been tossed down the limestone shaft known as the "Sima de los Huesos," or the "pit of bones." Part of a huge anthropological and archaeological site known as Atapuerca, the pit is near the site where the earliest evidence of human ancestors in Western Europe was found, the "Sima del Elefante" or the "pit of the elephant."

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Cranium 17 is set apart by two big skull fractures, from what appears to be the same implement. Unlike a non-fatal injury, there are no signs of healing, which is to say, evidence of this potential murder victim living past the injuries. Unlike post-mortem injuries, the fractures have evidence of happening to living bone. Because the two blows came from the same implement, it seems unlikely that the victim could've just fallen down the shaft. "Given that either of the two traumatic events was likely lethal," the study states, "the presence of multiple blows implies an intention to kill. This represents the earliest clear case of deliberate, lethal interpersonal aggression in the hominin fossil record, demonstrating that this is an ancient human behavior."

Image: PLOS One

The paper mentions other early examples of what could be "lethal interpersonal violence": a Neanderthal found with rib injuries from what looks like a tool, a Homo sapiens with sharp trauma in the vertebrae, but those could either be non-fatal injuries or hunting accidents respectively.

"For sure there has been violence throughout prehistory," the study's lead author Nohemi Sala told me in an email. "Unfortunately it is difficult to find evidences in the fossil record because we have only bones (no soft tissues) and the interpersonal violence not always leaves clear mark on the bone. This is the first documented case, like a 'smoking gun.'"

Reading through the study, despair began creeping in at the idea of our so-called "inhumanity" being right with us from the beginning. I asked Sala if the team ever felt discouraged, realizing that interpersonal violence may actually predate persons such as we know them.

"On the one hand yes, because we have documented that the intentional interpersonal violence is a behavior that accompanies humans since at least 430,000 years ago," she told me, "but so does the care of sick or even the care of the dead."

The only way for bodies to end up in the "Sima de los Huesos," Sala told me, was for other hominids to bring them there. It's a burial place, in this case, for someone who died from blunt force trauma. While we can only speculate on what lead to violence, it's safe to say that time, the devourer and murderer of all things, ensured that the killer is not still at large.