The data books have a fantastic new entry – Europe’s oldest murder victim on record, in a cave in southwest France. Subject of a new study, this presumably assassinated individual’s battered skull was probably met with a blunt object, like a stone axe. What’s worse is that the blunt force trauma unlikely achieved its objective instantly – scientists speculate that it might have taken an entire month for the individual to succumb to these wounds.
This early homo sapiens violence, not uncommon, was recorded at the famed Cro-Magnon rock shelter in Vézère Valley, Dordogne, which contains the remains of eight homo sapiens individuals in total, from between 31,000 and 33,000 years ago. These four adults and four children are representations of the earliest evidence of modern humans ever discovered in Europe. Just earlier this year, a digital reconstruction of Cro-Magnon 1’s face revealed a benign tumor in the forehead area.
Cro-Magnons were early humans who lived in Europe during the Upper Palaeolithic period, between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago. They were anatomically modern humans, who had a similar physical appearance to modern humans today.
The illustration of Cro-Magnon skull in the old book the Antropology, by I. Mechnikov, 1879, St. Petersburg. Source: wowinside / Adobe Stock.
A Perimortem Fracture
According to the study published in The Journal of Human Evolution , a skull defect found in the ancient human remains indicates that the person suffered a traumatic injury before death and likely only survived for a short period of time. The location of the injury suggests that there may have been interpersonal violence in the early human groups, and the way in which the remains were buried provides further insight into the burial practices of this time.
Among the ancient bones found at the site is a skull featuring a suspicious-looking defect on the frontal bone. Previous analyses have reached contrasting conclusions as to how the cranium became damaged, with some scholars believing the injury was sustained prior to death while others interpret the insult as post-mortem wear-and-tear.
Researchers used high-resolution computerized tomography (CT) scans to reconstruct a 3D model of the skull. They noticed that “the exposed fracture surfaces […] are smooth and undulating, like those associated with a perimortem fracture.” This suggests that the skull was likely damaged shortly before the individual died.
When comparing the injuries to those associated with cranial trauma from the pre-antibiotic era, the researchers began to build a clearer picture of how this unfortunate early individual expired. For example, they found that the porous fiber bone formation strongly resembled that seen in victims of head trauma during the American Civil War. In such cases, soldiers typically survived for a short period before contracting meningitis, “probably from post-traumatic bacterial infection producing swelling beneath the meninges of the brain.”
“Death, preceded by delirium and a comatose state, sometimes with convulsions, resulted a month or a few weeks after the initial injury,” write the study authors. The limited healing of the defect indicates that the victim did not immediately perish but probably died within a month of sustaining the injury, reports IFL Science .
The researchers conclude that the injury was more likely caused by violent assault than by any accidental bump to the head, as it occurred above the hat-brim line. “The defect has the appearance of penetrating blunt-force trauma with an object having a blunt edge, not sharp like those of metal tools and weapons. In other words, it is more like a chop-mark, rather than an incision,” they postulate. “Perhaps a stone axe could be suspected.”
Violence and Aggression: Cultural and Environmental Factors or Pre-Disposition?
While the findings contribute to our understanding of early Homo sapiens violence, suggesting that deadly conflict was already a part of life when our ancestors arrived in Europe, the absence of similar injuries in other individuals at the site suggests that this particular scuffle was an isolated incident and not part of a mass killing.
The idea that male aggression is a product of long evolution is a common narrative in popular and scientific literature. Recent archaeological findings like the Cro-Magnon skull suggest that this may not be the case, however.
The suggestion is that deadly conflict was already a part of life when our ancestors arrived in Europe, as corroborated by this Cambria Press book review of ‘Human Evolution and Male Aggression: Debunking the Myth of Man and Ape by Anne Innis Dagg and Lee E. Harding’, an authoritative commentary on this aspect of our evolution. It is important to contextualise this incident in the larger evolution timeline – it occurred less than half as long ago as the earliest known examples of artistic expression!
This discrepancy can cause a re-examination of our assumptions about the roots of human aggression. Aggression and violence may not be innate traits of human beings as always believed, but rather the result of cultural and environmental factors.
Top image: Human skull showing evidence of violence, representational. Source: Vladyslav / Adobe Stock.
By Sahir Pandey