The World’s Oldest Known Intentional Killing

Cranium 17 with two inflicted injuries

Cranium 17 with two inflicted injuries (Pic courtesy: Washington Post)

We humans are often taught to control our violent urges to be a part of the societal framework. We know & always learn that violence is a wrong answer, but it has been a fundamental part of our human species. History books show us that Homo sapiens has prevailed a monopoly on murder, intentionally sucking the life out of fellow being for one personal benefit or another. But, a recent finding in an archeological site in Spain tells us that Homo sapiens can’t alone claim the monopoly on intentional killing as a fossilized skull of a primitive member of Neanderthal lineage exhibits all the telltale signs of homicide.

The archeological site, Sima de los Huesos (“Pit of Bones”) in Norther Spain was found way back in 1984. The place is situated within a deep underground cave system, which can be accessed only through 13 meter deep vertical shaft. The place has hosted nearly 28 remains of other early Neanderthal humans, ranging from about 781,000 to 126,000 years ago. How the human bodies arrived through those narrow shafts still remains as a mystery. Various theories are propagated, which range from accidental fall down, death trap or ancestors willingly going down at old age. But the most popular theory is that the human bodies were intentionally carried to the cave system to be thrown down the shaft. If this theory was proved, then it might be the ancient evidence ritual burial known to science.

"Pit of Bones" site in Northern Spain

“Pit of Bones” site in Northern Spain

A study published in the PLOS One (Public Library of Science) journal states that a 430,000 year old skull, known as ‘Cranium 17’ was recently found buried in the underground cave system of Sima de los Huesos. The researchers painstakingly pieced through 52 fragments to put together the skull in one piece. Researchers discovered two prominent holes in the skull’s forehead, just above the left eye. A hunting accident or a deadly fall could also have caused, but relying on modern forensic techniques the researchers concluded that the fractures in skull are produced by an impact from an object from different trajectories. The two wounds were nearly at a gap of an inch (2 cm), which is seen as an evidence of blunt force trauma.

Nohemi Sala, the leading paleontologist in this research stated that it would be very unlikely to break the cranium twice in nearly the same place, accidentally. He suggested that the wounds were produced with the same object in face-to-face interpersonal conflict. This is what may now constitute the earliest case of murder or intentional killing in human history. However, very little is known about the skull’s gender and for now even the greatest detective couldn’t solve the mystery behind this ancient murder. The skull owner might have belonged to Homo heidelbergensis, who are all too old to belong to our species. These ancestral human species are known to have wandered Europe, Africa, and even Asia during the Middle Pleistocene era (between 700,000 to 200,000 years ago).

These ancestral humans were also said to be pioneers in adapting to live in cold climates, the first to hunt large animals, and also the first to build shelters. Only two other earlier cases of murder were discovered – one a Neanderthal and another modern human from Upper Paleolithic period (10,000 to 50,000 years ago) – although the evidence relating to their deaths couldn’t prove that it’s an intentional killing. Only in 2013, scientists discovered that Neanderthal were the first ancestral human species to held burial ceremonies (from the remains found in La Chapelle-aux Saints, Paris).


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