Paleolithic Murder Where Victim's Skull Was Bashed in 33,000 Years Ago Revealed by Scientists

Around 33,000 years ago, a man was bludgeoned to death in a cave in Romania, a team of scientists has said. After examining fractures on a fossilized skull dating to the Upper Paleolithic, the team say they have "indisputable hard evidence" of violence among Upper Paleolithic Europeans at this time, indicating murder was part of these ancient human's lives.

The skull, known as Cioclovina calvaria, was uncovered by miners in a cave in South Transylvania in 1941. It was found alongside cave bear fossils and ancient stone tools. It is thought to be one of the earliest, well-preserved fossils of a modern human in Europe.

Since its discovery, researchers have studied the skull, which belonged to an adult male, extensively. Katerina Harvati, from Germany's Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, told Newsweek: "He would have been a member of a hunter gatherer population, living under probably relatively harsh climatic conditions...He probably belonged to the Aurignacian culture, a stone tool industry associated with the earliest Upper Paleolithic modern humans across Europe."

He also suffered several skull fractures—two small ones at the front that were inflicted before death and another, large fracture on the right side of the skull. The timing of the latter fracture has been disputed, with researchers split over whether it happened before death or after.

In a study published in PLOS One, the trauma has been reassessed using forensic science and experimental simulations, allowing scientists to work out how and when the injury was inflicted. Using synthetic models of the skull, the team threw it from heights and hit it with rocks and bats.

Results showed there were two injuries that took place before or at the time of death. One fracture at the base of the skull, and another at the right side of the skull—the latter of which was inflicted with a bat-like object. Positioning indicates the fracture on the right of the skull was inflicted in a face-to-face confrontation, with the perpetrator striking the victim with the bat either in the left hand, or being held by both hands. The injuries did not heal, suggesting the blows were fatal.

The team also notes that only the skull was recovered from the cave. It is possible that more bodily injuries were sustained in the attack and these could also have contributed to the man's death.

Concluding, researchers say the injuries sustained do not fit with post-mortem damage, a fall or accidental injury: "Rather, they were sustained from multiple blows to the head with a club-like instrument, or from a combination of a fall and a blow to the head," they wrote.

paleolithic murder
Large fracture on the right hand side of the man's skull. Kranoti et al, 2019

"The lack of any signs of healing associated with these fractures indicates that the Cioclovina individual did not survive these lesions. It is not clear whether the [fracture] alone could have caused his death. However, a depressed fracture of the extent and magnitude…would have caused fatal brain injuries resulting in a quick demise.

"The location of this lesion suggests that it was inflicted by a blow from a likely left-handed perpetrator facing the victim. This may have been a result of a one to one conflict or murder by one or more perpetrators. Severe interpersonal conflict leading to death is therefore the hypothesis that is best supported by our findings."

The point at which the man was killed was a period of intense technological innovation, cultural complexity and increased symbolic behavior—for example, the Middle to Upper Paleolithic is considered the point where religion emerged. Understanding social relationships at this time is important in understanding how societies would later emerge.

"Upper Paleolithic modern humans are often described in terms of innovation, art, and competitive cultural advantage when compared, for example, too Neanderthals," Harvati said. "We show that they were also capable of violence and murder, and thus also showed the darker sides of human nature."