No fewer than 28 hominin skeletons have been recovered from the Sima de los Huesos site in the Atapuerca mountains of northern Spain. An analysis of DNA pulled from one skeleton suggests the tribe may be ancestral to both the Neanderthals and their east Eurasian contemporaries, the mysterious Denisovans
Holes in the head
One of the skulls is interesting for another reason: it has two large holes on the left side of the forehead. Nohemi Sala from Complutense University of Madrid, Spain and her colleagues used forensic techniques to work out how the holes formed. The skull is in 52 pieces, but while most of those fragments have edges that are perpendicular to the surface of the skull – typical of the way dry bone fractures long after death – the edges of the holes in the forehead were oblique in a way that's more consistent with a fresh bone fracture. What's more, both holes were roughly the same size and shape – and both had a distinctive "notch" at a similar location in their outlines. That suggests the holes were injuries sustained close to the hominin's time of death and involving repeated blows from the same object.
"We are pretty sure that these are not circumstantial injuries," says Sala. "Since either of these wounds would likely have been lethal, penetrating the brain, the presence of multiple wounds implies a deliberate act."
The attacker was probably right-handed, judging by the fact that the injuries were to the left side of the face. The weapon may have been a wooden spear, a stone spear tip or a stone hand axe, says Sala.
It's "completely compelling", says Debra Martin at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. "I suspect the farther we push back and find straight up forensic evidence such as these authors have, we will find that violence is culturally mediated and has been with us as long as culture itself has been with us." The find may also help settle a long-standing debate over exactly how so many hominin skeletons came to be preserved together. One idea is that, over time, a number of unlucky individuals fell down the vertical shaft by mistake. An alternative viewpoint is that the dead were deliberately thrown into the pit as part of an early funeral ritual.
The new analysis strongly favours the second view. It's clear that this individual was dead before he or she ended up in the pit, so they can hardly have stumbled into the hole by mistake. "The only possible manner by which a deceased individual could have arrived at the site is if its cadaver were dropped down the shaft by other hominins," says Sala. "Middle Pleistocene hominins were already engaging in funerary behaviour."
Barras, Colin. 2015. “CSI Stone Age: was 430,000-year-old hominin murdered?”. New Scientist. Posted: May 27, 2015. Available online: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn27611-csi-stone-age-was-430000yearold-hominin-murdered.html