Cold case: scientists encounter prehistoric murder mystery

Wed May 27, 2015 2:51pm EDT
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By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - This 430,000-year-old case may be the world's oldest murder mystery.

Scientists on Wednesday said a fossilized skull discovered deep inside a Spanish cave shows telltale signs of homicide: two fractures inflicted by the same weapon.

The skull, belonging to a primitive member of the Neanderthal lineage, was found in an apparent funerary site down a shaft in the appropriately bleak-sounding Sima de los Huesos, Spanish for "Pit of the Bones," in the Atapuerca mountains.

The skull shows that our species, Homo sapiens, cannot claim a monopoly on murder.

"This individual was killed in an act of lethal interpersonal violence, providing a window into an often-invisible aspect of the social life of our human ancestors," said paleontologist Nohemi Sala of Madrid's Centro Mixto UCM-ISCIII de Evolución y Comportamiento Humano.

This oldest-known example of murder occurred 230,000 years before our species first appeared in Africa.

"Based on the similarities in shape and size of both the wounds, we believe they are the result of repeated blows with the same object and inflicted by another individual, perhaps in a face-to-face encounter," Sala added.

Remains of nearly 30 individuals were found at the bottom of the 43-foot (13-meter) shaft.   Continued...

The skull of a prehistoric human relative that lived 430,000 years ago and found in a cave in northern Spain is shown in this undated handout photo provided by Madrid Scientific Films May 27, 2015.  REUTERS/Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films/Handout via Reuters