Piecing together a 435,000 years old Murder Mystery…


Murder is as old to human kind as human being is.  Different cultures have had different views on murder.

There was once a time and some cultures where murder was more easily tolerated and one could murder another.  Then came cultures with “morals” and in them the one who murdered was murdered as a punishment.

Evans-Pritchard says about the Nuer from Sudan: “Homicide is not forbidden, and Nuer do not think it wrong to kill a man in fair fight. On the contrary, a man who slays another in combat is admired for his courage and skill.” (Evans-Pritchard 1956: 195) This statement is true for most African tribes, for pre-modern Europeans, for Indigenous Australians, and for Native Americans, according to ethnographic reports from all over the world.

Then came the “Cultures of Codes” – Sumerians with their Code of Ur-Nammu and Judeo-Christian with the Ten Commandments.  The punishment for murder prescribed in the Sumerian code followed through in the Judeo-Christian tradition as well – “If a man commits a murder, that man must be killed.” A murder to avenge a murder was suddenly a morally correct stance!

However, there were certain cultures – like that of Papua New Guinea where the need for murder was taken to another level altogether!  Such cultures are known as the “headhunter cultures”

Homicides rise to incredible numbers among headhunter cultures such as the Papua. When a boy is born, the father has to kill a man. He needs a name for his child and can receive it only by a man, he himself has murdered. When a man wants to marry, he must kill a man. When a man dies, his family again has to kill a man.

So is our urge to murder so old?  Or is it something that civilization brought us to?

In a case that seems straight out of the world of Sherlock Holmes, the scientists have pieced together a skull of a person who lived 435,000 years back and was murdered!

Two episodes of “localized blunt force trauma” to the skull with “an intention to kill.” 3-D imaging to re-create the injuries. Bodies dropped down a 43-foot-deep vertical shaft into a mass grave. A murder case — more than 435,000 years old.

The journal PLOS one says:

Evidence of interpersonal violence has been documented previously in Pleistocene members of the genus Homo, but only very rarely has this been posited as the possible manner of death. Here we report the earliest evidence of lethal interpersonal violence in the hominin fossil record. Cranium 17 recovered from the Sima de los Huesos Middle Pleistocene site shows two clear perimortem depression fractures on the frontal bone, interpreted as being produced by two episodes of localized blunt force trauma. The type of injuries, their location, the strong similarity of the fractures in shape and size, and the different orientations and implied trajectories of the two fractures suggest they were produced with the same object in face-to-face interpersonal conflict. Given that either of the two traumatic events was likely lethal, the presence of multiple blows implies an intention to kill. This finding shows that the lethal interpersonal violence is an ancient human behavior and has important implications for the accumulation of bodies at the site, supporting an anthropic origin.
Source – PLOS Journal

Rolf Quam of the Binghamton University was involved in the team that discovered the skull in a burial area deep beneath the earth.  Scientists, the nice guys that they are, aren’t quite ready to call it murder.  So they call it Lethal Interpersonal Violence!  Listen to this interesting report from NPR.

Is Murder just a murder?

Murder is not just any action.  It doesn’t happen in the animal world as much.  However when it happens it does so in cases where survival is at stake or territorial integrity is threatened.  Broadly speaking, the need to survive.  In case of humans, it seems we have murdered for our lust, greed, survival and expansion of our territory.

The intent to take someone’s life needs a certain numbing of the emotions which comes from a complex handling of one’s thoughts and conscience.  Left to his own, a man wouldn’t murder someone else – if his humanity blossoms forth.  It is only when we are possessed by something that we are attached to, that we can justify killing another human being.

The Grave

And, this grave wasn’t just any grave.  It was a mass grave.  That means it might well have been a sacrificial place where human sacrifice may have happened almost half a million years ago.  Otherwise why would so many dead be in one place?  The scientists however, are calling it a place which was used as a burial place, such that other humans were throwing the dead into a shaft deep down to bury.

And in that they see one of the oldest evidence of ritual involving the dead.  Also that we were mourning the dead even back then!

The discovery of the “Pit of Bones” suggests another unique feature of these early humans: They cared for their dead. The authors of the PLOS One study believe that the 28 skeletons found in the pit could only have been placed there intentionally.
“Other humans went to the top of this vertical shaft and deposited dead members of their social group down into the site, and in this way formed a kind of primitive cemetery or kind of an early manifestation of funerary practices,” Quam told NPR. “Clearly this is an intentional human disposal of the dead.”
If Quam and his colleagues are right, the pit is the oldest evidence of ritual burial known to science. It means that humans there may have been the earliest modern mourners as well as the earliest murderers.

Whether it was a burial place or a mass sacrificial place – one thing is for sure, man – or his ancestor back then in the pre-Neanderthal age – was thinking of disposing the dead in a certain way.

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