Early humans in Europe may have brutally smashed skulls, study finds

They smashed the skulls with blunt weapons.
Nergis Firtina
Human skull.
Human skull.


It's possible that the first murder victim in European history is buried at the rear of a cave in southwest France, a new study suggests. 

Scientists analyzed the fractured skulls and found that the murderer most likely used a blunt weapon, like a stone axe, and the victim may have taken up to a month to succumb to their injuries.

As per the IFL Science, the Cro-Magnon rock shelter, which was first uncovered in 1868, comprises the bones of eight Homo sapiens people who are thought to have lived between 31,000 and 33,000 years ago. The four adults and four children are the earliest examples of modern humans ever found in Europe, and they were alive and well in the middle of the Upper Paleolithic.

One of the prehistoric bones discovered at the location is a skull with a suspicious-looking flaw on the frontal bone. Past investigations have yielded conflicting results regarding how the cranium came to be damaged; some researchers think the lesion occurred before death, while others interpret it as post-mortem wear and tear.

Early humans in Europe may have brutally smashed skulls, study finds
A Cro-Magnon skull.

They created a 3D skull model

Located in Paris, Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle is keeping the skulls. Researchers try to partially bond back together the skulls along the fault lines. By doing this, they created a 3D skull model using high-resolution computed tomography (CT) scans to get around. They realized that "the exposed fracture surfaces […] are smooth and undulating, like those associated with a perimortem fracture.” The skull was likely damaged just before its owner died, also explains IFL Science.

“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. “A similar result and sequelae could be expected [at Cro-Magnon].”

“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 say.

The study will be published in the Journal of Human Evolution's April issue.

Study abstract:

Discovered over 150 years ago, the early Upper Paleolithic human remains from the Cro-Magnon rock shelter have an iconic status, but because of skeletal commingling after discovery, their bio-profiles remain incomplete and contentious. The defect on the frontal bone of the cranium known as Cro-Magnon 2 has been interpreted as both an antemortem injury and a postmortem (i.e., taphonomic) artifact previously. This contribution considers the cranium in order to clarify the status of the defect on the frontal bone and to situate these remains among others of Pleistocene date with similar types of lesions. The diagnostic criteria used to assess the cranium are drawn from recent publications of actualistic experimental studies of cranial trauma and those associated with cranial trauma due to violence in forensic anthropological and bioarchaeological contexts. The appearance of the defect and comparison with more recent documented cases from the preantibiotic era suggest that the defect is a result of antemortem trauma with survival for a short period. The location of the lesion on the cranium provides growing evidence for interpersonal aggression in these early modern human groups, and the place of burial also provides insight into related mortuary behavior.