Killed with a blunt instrument

Evidence for lethal interpersonal violence in the Middle Pleistocene

Evidence of interpersonal violence between humans resulting is (perhaps surprisingly) rare in the Pleistocene. Examples include the Shanidar 3 and St. Césaire 1 Neanderthals, from Iraq and southwestern France respectively. Shanidar 3 suffered a penetrating injury from a projectile weapon, and St. Césaire 1 suffered a fractured skull consistent with a deliberate blow from a sharp object. It cannot be ruled out that the injuries were the result of accidents: a hunting injury in the case of Shanidar 3 and a fall in the case of St. Césaire 1 (though the location of the injury at the apex rather than side of the cranial vault makes this unlikely). Neither incident was fatal, at least not immediately so, as both lived long enough thereafter for healing to begin. There are also cases where bones have been de-fleshed and broken open to extract marrow, suggesting cannibalism – although it is unclear whether individuals were attacked and killed, or whether they were already dead and possibly eaten by their companions.

The 430,000-year-old site of Sima de los Huesos (‘Cave of Bones’) in northern Spain has yielded a large number of human remains described as either Homo heidelbergensis or as proto-Neanderthals. The remains were found in a deep pit into which they were intentionally dropped, either as part of a mortuary ritual or more likely as a means of hygienically disposing of dead bodies.

Cranium 17 is a very complete cranium recovered in 52 pieces. It comprises the entire face, including much of the upper dentition (upper right C to M3 and upper left C to M2), the frontal bone, most of the sphenoid bone, the left parietal bone, the left temporal bone minus the mastoid process, and most of the occipital bone. The slight dental wear suggests that Cranium 17 belonged to a young adult.

Most of the fragmentation of the cranium involved dry bone breakage occurring long after death. However, there were two unhealed depressed fractures consistent with blunt force trauma from the same weapon (or ‘tool’ as the paper euphemistically describes it), resulting in penetration of the bone-brain barrier. Either injury would probably have been fatal: two suggests an intention to kill. Furthermore, the presence of two injuries caused by impact with the same object more or less rules out post-mortem damage to the cranium caused by it landing on a hard object when it was dropped into the pit, or by subsequent rock-falls.

Cranium 17 represent the earliest reasonably clear-cut case of interpersonal violence between humans leading to death. It demonstrates that this rather depressing aspect of human behaviour has an ancient origin.


1. Sala, N. et al., Lethal Interpersonal Violence in the Middle Pleistocene. PLoS One (2015).

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