The Sima de los Huesos Skull: A Victim of Murder?

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Cranium 17

Was Cranium 17 from the Sima de los Huesos a prehistoric murder victim? Photo credit: Javier Trueba / Madrid Scientific Films. Copyright image courtesy of Dr N Sala, all rights reserved, used with permission.

Analysis of lethal wounds on a skull found at the site of Sima de los Huesos, Spain, may serve as evidence for one of the first cases of murder in human history, according to a study published in PLOS One on the 27th May 2015.

Dr Nohemi Sala, part of the team behind the study, spoke to Decoded Past about the evidence for the murder– and how the disposal of the body could also be evidence for early funeral practices.

 Sima de Los Huesos

 Sima de los Huesos, or “the pit of bones,” is part of the Cueva Mayor-Cueva del Silo cave system in the Sierra de Atapuerca region of Northern Spain.

The “pit of bones” is located at the bottom of a 13 meter vertical shaft. The bones in question consist of some 6500 bone fragments in all, including 500 teeth.

“The Sima de los Huesos site has yielded an extraordinarily large sample of middle Pleistocene (c. 430 kya) and corresponding to a minimum of 28 individuals with both sexes represented,” Dr Sala told Decoded Past.


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Mortality distribution is dominated by individuals who died between the ages of 11 and 20 years, with fewer older adults and only one individual under the age of 10.”

 The remains are all of Neanderthal hominids and date to the same time period. Their only currently discernible route to their final resting place was down the vertical shaft — currently the cave’s only known entrance.

Cranium 17

Over the last 20 years, archaeologists have excavated 52 cranial fragments from the same body, resulting in a near complete skull, known as Cranium 17. On the frontal bone of the skull, over the left eye, experts have discovered two penetrating lesions.

Contour and trajectory analysis of the traumas suggest that two separate blows from the same object caused the injuries prior to death. Dr Sala is confident that these injuries were not accidentally caused by postmortem injuries to the skull during its descent into the pit or its compression after death:

“The fact that both wounds are very similar in size and shape, including the presence of a ‘notch’ at a similar location in the outlines of both fractures, suggests both were caused by the same object in two different impacts,” she told Decoded Past. Since either of these wounds would likely have been lethal penetrating the brain, the presence of multiple wounds implies a deliberate act.”

Even though other examples of interpersonal violence have been found during the Pleistocene era, very rarely have they been the cause of death. This makes Cranium 17 one of the earliest examples of murder.

 So if someone caused the injuries deliberately, what did the person use?

We are not sure what the murder weapon was,” Dr Sala told Decoded Past. “However, possibilities include a wooden spear, a stone spear tip or a stone hand axe.”

model showing of injuries to Cranium 17

This 3D model of Cranium 17 highlights the position and similar shape of the two fatal injuries on the frontal bone of the skull. Copyright image courtesy of Dr N Sala, all rights reserved, used with permission.

An Early Example of Deliberate Interment?

The owner of Cranium 17 was already dead when he made his journey down the shaft of Sima de los Huesos. It seems likely that the other 27 individuals in the pit were, too, as the probability of so many people accidentally falling down the same hole is most unlikely.

This and the fact that none of the bodies in the pit of bones show signs of disarticulation prior to deposition suggests that whole bodies were deliberately deposited at the site. This has led Dr Sala and her team to conclude that the site is evidence for some of the earliest funeral practices.

The evidence of funeral practices at the Sima de Los Huesos site is mainly intentional human disposal of the dead inside the cave chamber,” explained Dr Sala. “Given the manner of deposition of the human remains, we cannot rely on the same criteria applied to Neanderthal and Upper Paleolithic H. Sapiens burials (e.g. grave pit, grave goods etc.). Rather, we have relied on the identification of intentionality to conclude that Middle Pleistocene hominids were already engaging in funeral behaviour.”

The Importance of the Findings at Sima de los Huesos

The findings at Sima de los Huesos show that hominids were engaging in social — and anti social– activities much earlier in prehistory than supposed.

The deliberate violence visited on cranium 17 is suggestive of social conflict between different groups, caused by scarcity of resources, an increase in population or territorial competition.

But the deliberate deposition of the bodies in Sima de los Huesos shows that whether friends or enemies buried the bodies, there was a recognition in the middle Pleistocene that it was important to properly dispose of the dead.

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© Copyright 2015 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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