Paleolithic cold case file: Was this man murdered 33,000 years ago?

Posted at 12:07 PM, Jul 03, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-03 14:07:27-04

In 1941, a human skull was unearthed during mining in Romanian cave, along with stone tools and cave bear fossils. The 33,000-year-old discovery became one of the earliest dated and well-preserved modern humans from Europe.

Dubbed Cioclovina calvaria — for the cave where it was found and the Latin word for “skull” — the fossil shed light on Europe’s early modern humans.

Analysis revealed that the skull belonged to a man, but even though it has been well-studied, questions remained about how he died.

A line fracture can be seen at the base of the skull, as well as a caving fracture on the right side. The semicircular depressed fracture had a radius of 1.4 inches and could only have been produced by a rounded object.

Researchers decided to reassess trauma visible on the skull to determine how it might have happened and whether it was fatal. From observations alone, it looked like the results of blunt force trauma.

But they followed up with multiple CT scans, experimental trauma analysis and a forensic interpretation of their findings, according to a study published in the journal PLOS One on Wednesday.

The signatures of blunt force trauma were evident in the scans. Small bone fragments were still attached to the impact site, acute and obtuse fracture angles were apparent, and there was a permanent deformation of the bone after the force caused it to exceed natural flexibility. These observations are also indicative of an injury that leads to death, as opposed to occurring postmortem. There were no signs of healing to suggest that the man had time to recover from these injuries.

The blow also appeared to arc toward the back of the skull, which would suggest that it came from someone standing in front of the man.

Next, the researchers simulated different injuries using synthetic bone spheres from Synbone, a company that makes surgical education models for health-care professionals. The hollow spheres are made of polyurethane filled with gelatin, ballistic powder and water, which simulates a human skull and brain. They tested what happened when the spheres fell from different heights or sustained single blows from rocks and club-like objects.

Given the part of the skull that was affected, the shape of the depression and slanted direction of the blow, the researchers ruled out falling cave debris. Cave debris would have come from directly overhead with an angular strike, rather than rounded.

The sphere simulations helped researchers determine that the man was struck with a round club-like object during a face-to-face confrontation. The person struck with their left hand or held the club with both hands, given the placement of the fracture on the right side of the skull. It would be the opposite if the person had struck using their right hand.

It’s possible, but not as likely, that the man was also kneeling when it happened.

Given both injuries, the man was either struck with multiple blows to the head or received a blow to the head and fell.

The rest of the remains are missing, so it’s difficult to know whether other injuries caused his death. But the extent and magnitude of the head injuries would have been fatal to his brain, causing a quick demise, according to the study.

Researchers ruled the cause to be “severe interpersonal conflict leading to death” by one or more perpetrators. This suggests that homicide happened during the Upper Paleolithic era.

“The Upper Paleolithic was a time of increasing cultural complexity and technological sophistication. Our work shows that violent interpersonal behaviour and murder was also part of the behavioural repertoire of these early modern Europeans,” the researchers wrote in the study.