Evidence of earliest murder comes to light

Lethal fractures preserved in an almost fully preserved early human skull indicate the earliest instance of murder in human history, some 4,30,000 years ago (Middle Pleistocene).

The skull was recovered from an archaeological site Sima de los Huesos in northern Spain. The results of a study were published on Thursday in the journal PLOS ONE.

The presence of two fractures of similar size and shape but running in two different directions on the frontal bone strongly suggests that the early human was killed when another member of his group stuck the skull twice using the same object.

The fractures are present on the left side of the frontal bone suggesting that a right-handed member had stuck the skull during a face-to-face conflict.

Incidentally, the Sima de los Huesos population is considered “mainly right-handed.”

According to Nohemi Sala, the first author of the paper from the ‘Centro Mixto UCM-ISCIII de Evolución y Comportamiento Humanos,’ Madrid, Spain, the fractures are very unlikely to be due to accidental or unintentional trauma. Also, the multiple blows rule out the possibility of the injuries being self-inflicted.

Murder involved repeated blows

Elaborating on the discovery of a skull from an archaeological site Sima de los Huesos in northern Spain, the authors of a study maintain that in fact, signs of repeated blows indicate a “clear intention to kill” during interpersonal violence. “This represents the earliest clear case of deliberate, lethal interpersonal aggression in the hominin fossil record,” the authors write.

The Sima de los Huesos site located deep within an underground cave system has skeletal remains of a minimum of 28 hominins. Though four different hypotheses have been proposed for the accumulation of skeletal remains, there is only one possible access route to the site — a 13-metre-deep vertical shaft. The accumulation could have been due to accidental falls or intentional deposition.

The results of the latest study rules out accidental falls as the hominin had been murdered. Therefore, deposition of dead bodies could be the only explanation for the skeletal remains in the Sima de los Huesos site. The authors speculate that deposition of bodies was a “social practice” of the Middle Pleistocene hominins and represents the “earliest funerary behaviour in the human fossil record.”

Published in The Hindu on May 29, 2015