430,000-Year-Old Skull Could Feature Oldest Evidence of Murder

Javier Trueba / Madrid Scientific Films
Javier Trueba / Madrid Scientific Films / Javier Trueba / Madrid Scientific Films

A group of scientists from Spain may have uncovered the earliest evidence of human murder ever discovered. While plenty of evidence for interpersonal violence—like cut marks and breaks on bones—exists dating back to prehistoric times, a 430,000-year-old Neandertal skull discovered in Sima de los Huesos, a cave in northern Spain, could be the oldest intentional lethal injury to a human ancestor in the scientific record. The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.  

Cracks in the skull appear to be the result of multiple intentional blows by a right-handed person, likely ruling out the possibility that the injury was an accident. Unlike other instances of skull injuries found in fossils from this time, there isn’t any evidence of the wound having healed, suggesting that the person died as a result of the blunt-force trauma.

“This represents the earliest clear case of deliberate, lethal interpersonal aggression in the hominin fossil record, demonstrating that this is an ancient human behavior,” the researchers argue. This doesn’t necessarily mean that human ancestors didn’t kill each other earlier in prehistory. But this, they claim, is the oldest evidence discovered so far. 

The existence of a murdered body at Sima de los Huesos would also give scientists a clearer idea of how bones generally ended up there. More than 6700 bones belonging to at least 28 individuals have been uncovered at the site. If this particular body was dropped into the cave after it was dead, Sima de los Huesos may have been a very early funeral site, rather than the site of a series of accidental falls or some other deadly occurrence.