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World’s Oldest Murder Mystery Was 430,000 Years in the Making

The first known murder was just as brutal as any other. The attacker smashed the victim twice in the head, leaving matching holes above the victim’s left eyebrow. The dead body was then dropped down a 43-foot shaft into a cave—where it lay for nearly half a million years.

Talk about your cold case.

Paleontologists pieced together the 430,000-year-old skull and reported their forensic analysis Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE. Injuries to the skull represent the oldest direct evidence of homicide, the scientists say.

As for whether this was the first murder ever to occur, “for sure that’s not the case,” says Nohemi Sala, lead author of the study. The scientists can describe this victim as a young adult, but the age and even gender are unknown.

“In the fossil record, there are many cases of traumatic injury, but not a lot of evidence of killing,” says Sala, a paleontologist at the Instituto de Salud Carlos III in Madrid.

That doesn’t mean killing was uncommon before modern times, of course, but fossilized remains of any kind are relatively rare so far back.

The last several tens of thousands of years, on the other hand, are littered with grisly scenes. Take the case of Shanidar-3, a Neanderthal who lived about than 50,000 years ago. A cut on one of his left ribs shows that Shanidar-3 was probably killed by a spear, making him perhaps the oldest known murder victim prior to the new find.

The latest skull comes from the Sima de los Huesos, or “Pit of Bones,” site in Spain, where paleontologists have found the remains of at least 28 individuals. Who were these people? Well, they weren’t modern humans, and they weren’t really Neanderthals either.

Exactly what to call the Sima de los Huesos people has been debated, but Sala and her colleagues identify them as members of the species Homo heidelbergensis, an early human ancestor that gave rise to the Neanderthals.

Cause of death

To figure out whether the skull fractures resulted from blows or from the fall down the cave shaft, the team compared the injuries to those from modern cases of violence and falls. A face-to-face attack with a blunt instrument best fits the pattern of injury, the scientists say. The bones showed no evidence of healing, so the victim probably died immediately or soon after the attack.

© Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films, from Arsuaga et al/Science 2014
The “Pit of Bones” cave in Spain. © Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films, from Arsuaga et al/Science 2014
The remains of 28 individuals who lived over 400,000 years ago were found in this cave, the "Pit of Bones" in Spain.

What’s more, the two holes in the skull are the same shape and appear to have been made by the same weapon. It’s very unlikely that an accidental fall onto a rock would produce two nearly identical skull fractures, the team says.

The weapon

Sala says the weapon was probably “something very hard,” but we’ll never know if it was made of wood or rock, or something else.

The scientists scoured the site, she says, but didn’t turn up any potential murder weapons. There was only stone tool found at the site, and it wasn’t the right shape.

The motive

Another unsolved mystery: what drove an ancient person to kill. “Life was hard in the past,” Sala says, so there could have conflicts over resources or any number of reasons for a fight.

Even with difficult lives, though, Sala describes the Sima de los Huesos people as caring for one another. “There were 28 individuals at the site of different ages,” she says. “We know that some of these people had health problems. One person had very serious pathology in the lower back and probably had troule walking and moving.” Someone had to be caring for these people before their deaths, she says.

And while it might not sound like a lovely funeral today, the fact that people living at the site buried bodies by dropping them down the same shaft indicates some sense of ceremonial burial or ritual—the dead weren’t merely dragged away from the campsite to decay.

Overall, the site paints a picture of ancient people who lived, loved—and sometimes fought—together.

Sala’s take on life with Homo heidelbergensis: “They’re not so bad—at least they have also good points.”



5 thoughts on “World’s Oldest Murder Mystery Was 430,000 Years in the Making

  1. The writer keeps referring to these people as “scientists” when they are clearly frustrated novelists. No one can possibly prove the fantastical characterizations of an Ancient Homo “Days of Our Lives” soap opera. What’s next? Neanderthal “Bodice Rippers”? CSI Sima de los Huesos? The weapon was probably “something very hard”? That’s genius!!

  2. You are using murder and killing as if they were identical in meaning. The evidence here points to a killing but not the reason for it. Calling it a murder implies we have far more information on the incident.

    It might have been self-defence or in defence of others. It could have been an execution or an act of war. It may have been euthanasia in the case of the victim suffering poisoning, disease or some cultural taboo that they thought required death.

    The recent legal definition of murder would also require the perpetrator to be sane and above the age of criminal responsibility and the act to be premeditated. We do not know if there was a codified legal system in place at that time.

  3. An interesting twist on Shanidar-3, the Neanderthal that was killed by a spear: The murder weapon appears to have been a projectile–a thrown spear, which Neanderthals aren’t known to have used, but Homo sapiens did at the time. So Shanidar-3 may be a case of interspecies homicide.

  4. Agree with Pat Collins. To define this as murder as opposed to homicide without facts to back up the word choice is erroneous. However, I can understand the author’s desire. “homicide mystery” doesn’t ring in the ear (or the eye?) the same way “murder mystery” does.

    1. You got me there–“oldest apparently intentional killing” just doesn’t have a ring to it, so I’m setting modern legal definitions aside. Hopefully everyone gets the point that this is the oldest recorded evidence so far that suggests one person may have intentionally killed another. Next, we can argue over whether Homo heidelbergensis is a “person,” another sticky question.

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