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Is This the World’s Oldest Murder Mystery?

The nearly complete skull, Cranium 17, is comprised of 52 cranial fragments that were recovered during the excavations at the site over the last 20 years. The skull has two penetrating lesions on the frontal bone, just above the left eye. (Image: Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films)
The nearly complete skull, Cranium 17, is comprised of 52 cranial fragments that were recovered during the excavations at the site over the last 20 years. The skull has two penetrating lesions on the frontal bone, just above the left eye. (Image: Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films)

Spain has a dark past, with scientists finding the world’s oldest murder mystery.

A 430,000-year-old human skull has all the hallmarks of a homicide.

The researchers said this find also shows the earliest funerary practices in the archaeological record.

The site is located deep within an underground cave system, and contains the skeletal remains of at least 28 individuals that date to around 430,000 years ago, during the Middle Pleistocene time period. The only access to the site is through a 13-metre deep vertical shaft, and how the human bodies arrived there remains a mystery, reported NDTV.

This cave in Spain — the Sima de los Huesos site — has yielded the biggest collection of ancient human fossils ever recovered from a single site. Image: Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films

This cave in Spain—the Sima de los Huesos site—has yielded the biggest collection of ancient human fossils ever recovered from a single site.
(Image: Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films)

The research was carried out at the archaeological site of the Sima de los Huesos in northern Spain. The researchers were made up of an international team of collaborators, which included anthropologist Rolf Quam from Binghamton University. The study was published in the journal PLoS ONE.

The nearly complete skull, Cranium 17, is comprised of 52 cranial fragments that were recovered during the excavations at the site over the last 20 years. The skull has two penetrating lesions on the frontal bone, just above the left eye.

Skull

Photos showing skull trauma. (Image: Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films)

“Evidence for interpersonal violence in the human fossil record is relatively scarce, and this would appear to represent the coldest cold case on record,” said Quam.

Using modern forensic techniques, such as 3D imaging analysis of the cranial blunt force trauma, the authors were able to show that both of the fractures were most likely produced by two separate impacts with the same object at different trajectories around the time of the individual’s death.

Photo credit: Javier Trueba (Madrid Scientific Films).

Forensic analysis of the two separate impacts to the skull. (Image: Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films)

The authors say that the injuries are not consistent with an accidental fall down the vertical shaft. They believe that with the type of fracture and the location, it would appear to have been produced by two blows with the same object. This has led the authors to interpret it as a result of an act of lethal interpersonal aggression.

By comparing "Skull 17" from the Sima de los Huesos site with many others found in the same cave, researchers were able to discern the common facial features of the era. Image: Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films

By comparing ‘Skull 17’ from the Sima de los Huesos site with many others found in the same cave, researchers were able to discern the common facial features of the era. (Image: Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films)

If this individual was already dead, other humans likely carried him to the top of the vertical shaft. The authors suggest that humans were likely responsible for the accumulation of bodies in the Sima de los Huesos, which supports the idea that this site represents early evidence of funerary behavior, wrote NDTV.

“This is really good evidence for an intentional role for humans in the accumulation of bodies at the bottom of this pit and suggests the hominins from this time period were already engaging in complex cognitive behaviors,” Quam added.

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