‘World’s oldest murder’ was not an isolated incident

In 2015, a skull was identified at the famous Sima de los Huesos (pit of bones) in Atapuerca, Spain, as evidence of the oldest murder in human history. Research by a group of Spanish paleoanthropologists did show that his wounds over his left eye were the result of two blows with the same object by an attacker facing his victim. This one, called “Skull No. 17”, of which only 52 skull fragments and part of the dentition are known today, was a young man of indeterminate sex, belonging to a population of pre-Neanderthals who lived approximately 430,000 years ago. those. in the Middle Pleistocene*.

Thus, after this study, “Skull No. 17” received a sad name: this is the first known case of fatal interpersonal violence in the annals of the Homo genre. But he or she was probably not alone or alone in his misfortune. In the deposits where he/she rested, which today are considered the largest known collections of skulls and jawbones in all of human paleontology, 20 individuals are represented by skulls and jawbones (the number of 29 individuals present at this site is estimated based on the dentition ). Of these 20 deceased, at least 17 had cranial lesions of round morphology, interpreted as “blunt force trauma causing bone depression in places”. Even more surprisingly, 57 lesions were found in these same individuals with signs of healing.

Injuries in all people without exception

These new findings, reached by the same team as in 2015, and in particular by Nochemi Sala, researcher at the Spanish National Center for Research in Human Evolution (CENIEH), were the subject of an article dated February 23, 2022 in the review Anatomical notation – in this case, a special issue dedicated to Sima de los Huesos. “By observing points such as footprints and cracks in fossils, we can decipher their process. [de formation] as if we were performing an autopsy, explains Nohemi Sala.

View of wounds on turtles 3 and 7. Credits: CENIEH/Sala

Thus, it was noted, first, that these cranial injuries affected people of all ages and all sexes, without any particular differences in this fossil population. “Remarkable is the high frequency of injuries with signs of bone regeneration in the bones of the skull in almost all people”team notes. “But whichever agent is causing such a high rate of minor trauma — intergroup violence events, random causes, or whatever — doesn’t seem to be affecting the preferred population.”

Banal violence

It was then and above all that it was established that nine people, including the famous Skull No. 17, had signs of traumatic brain injury. dying (occurs at death) deep enough to be lethal. Of these nine fossil skulls, six had through fractures – round holes of the same size – in the left occipital region. “The pattern is so repetitive that it leaves little room for interpretation”can be read in the conclusions of the study. Especially since the location is not what one would expect from an accidental injury and is more compatible with intentional injuries. Therefore, these lesions are interpreted as possible cases of violence, as was found for skull 17. “Therefore, repeated acts of deadly violence among the human groups that inhabited Atapuerca in the middle Pleistocene seem obvious.”

This is not the first instance of inter-gang violence in Atapuerca: in 2016 it was found that membershomo antecedent, belonging to older timelines, was involved in conflict between different communities within his group. But unlike Antecessor, who ate the dead after conflict, the Sima de los Huesos hominins accumulated corpses in a natural grave. The Panel also notes that no traces have been documented to indicate that the remains were moved long distances prior to being placed in the cavity. “We can interpret this as a sign that the skeletons arrived in the cave intact and shortly after death.”

*This information was accidentally omitted when the article was published on 03/11/22.

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