Almost half a million years ago, a brutal attack involving two blows to the head left an ancient human dead.
The victim was left with a fractured skull, and his, or her, dead body was then dropped into a mass grave known as the “Pit of Bones.” For thousands of years the body lay untouched, until scientists discovered the grave and started studying the remains.
Evidence suggests murder by blunt instrument
This Wednesday the journal PLOS One published a study which tells the story of the reconstruction of the ancient death scene using fragments of the fractured skull. The remains were discovered in northern Spain alongside 27 other bodies. Although scientists know little about the victim, they are certain that the remains are evidence of the oldest known murder in the world.
Researchers reconstructed the prehistoric skull from approximately 50 fragments, and identified two holes in its forehead, just above the left eye. Although the injuries could have occurred as a result of a fall or an accident, scientists say that the best explanation is an attack by a fellow human.
They believe that the injuries were caused by a single instrument in a face-to-face fight, and the fact that there are two direct blows suggest that the death was anything but accidental. This means that the skull is the earliest evidence of “interpersonal violence” between humans.
Homo heidelbergensis were pioneering human ancestors
Despite advances in science, it is impossible to contextualize the killing. What we do know is that the mass grave was full of Homo heidelbergensis, a pre-human ancestor that lived approximately 700,000 to 200,000 years ago. As well as being the first to kill each other, they were also the first to live in colder climates, hunt large animals on a regular basis and build shelters.
The burial site also suggests that these early humans were unique in that they cared for their dead, and the study authors believe that the 28 bodies were placed in the pit on purpose.
Assuming that the researchers are correct, the pit provides the oldest known evidence of ritual burial. Not only were the Homo heidelbergensis the first murderers, they were the first mourners.