Evidence for lethal interpersonal violence in the Middle Pleistocene
Evidence of interpersonal violence between humans resulting is (perhaps surprisingly) rare in the Pleistocene. Examples include the Shanidar 3 and St. Césaire 1 Neanderthals, from Iraq and southwestern France respectively. Shanidar 3 suffered a penetrating injury from a projectile weapon, and St. Césaire 1 suffered a fractured skull consistent with a deliberate blow from a sharp object. It cannot be ruled out that the injuries were the result of accidents: a hunting injury in the case of Shanidar 3 and a fall in the case of St. Césaire 1 (though the location of the injury at the apex rather than side of the cranial vault makes this unlikely). Neither incident was fatal, at least not immediately so, as both lived long enough thereafter for healing to begin. There are also cases where bones have been de-fleshed and broken open to extract marrow, suggesting cannibalism – although it is unclear whether individuals were attacked and killed, or whether they were already dead and possibly eaten by their companions.
The 430,000-year-old site of Sima de los Huesos (‘Cave of Bones’) in northern Spain has yielded a large number of human remains described as either Homo heidelbergensis or as proto-Neanderthals. The remains were found in a deep pit into which they were intentionally dropped, either as part of a mortuary ritual or more likely as a means of hygienically disposing of dead bodies.
Cranium 17 is a very complete cranium recovered in 52 pieces. It comprises the entire face, including much of the upper dentition (upper right C to M3 and upper left C to M2), the frontal bone, most of the sphenoid bone, the left parietal bone, the left temporal bone minus the mastoid process, and most of the occipital bone. The slight dental wear suggests that Cranium 17 belonged to a young adult.
Most of the fragmentation of the cranium involved dry bone breakage occurring long after death.
However, there were two unhealed depressed fractures consistent with blunt force trauma from the same weapon (or ‘tool’ as the paper euphemistically describes it), resulting in penetration of the bone-brain barrier. Either injury would probably have been fatal: two suggests an intention to kill. Furthermore, the presence of two injuries caused by impact with the same object more or less rules out post-mortem damage to the cranium caused by it landing on a hard object when it was dropped into the pit, or by subsequent rock-falls.
Cranium 17 represent the earliest reasonably clear-cut case of interpersonal violence between humans leading to death. It demonstrates that this rather depressing aspect of human behaviour has an ancient origin.
Sala, N. et al., Lethal Interpersonal Violence in the Middle Pleistocene. PLoS One (2015).
Which do you think is the better response to the appalling incident where a little girl was hit and dragged along the pavement by a cyclist?
“We at London Cycling Campaign were shocked to hear that a child had been hit by a cyclist on a pavement in Blackpool. Pavement cycling is both dangerous and illegal. We unreservedly condemn the thoughtless and selfish actions of the individual responsible. We wish the child a full and speedy recovery and our thoughts are with her and our family. We feel that it would be inappropriate to make any further comment at this time.”
OR the actual response to the incident?
Just read it and make up your own mind as to which response is more likely to gain the support of the non-cycling public.
3.3-million-year-old tool tradition significantly predates first humans
In recent years, a growing body of evidence has suggested that the making of stone tools predates the emergence of the earliest humans. In the 1990s, Oldowan-type tools dating to around 2.6 million years ago were found at the Gona River study area in Ethiopia. The tools slightly predated the then-earliest known humans, but as they were not associated with hominin remains there was no way of telling who the toolmakers had been. Towards the end of the decade, evidence of carcass butchery dating to around 2.5 million years ago was found at the nearby Bouri Formation. Bones of large mammals with cut-marks thought to be made by stone tools in the process of de-fleshing the carcasses were associated with australopithecine remains. Unfortunately, on this occasion, no actual stone tools were found.
Similarly, in 2010, it was claimed that animal bones from Dikika, Ethiopia, show cut-marks resulting from de-fleshing, and signs of having been struck with hammerstones to extract bone marrow. The remains are 3.39 million years old, early enough to preclude human involvement – but again no actual tools were found. It could not be ruled out that naturally-occurring sharp pieces of stone had been used. It is also possible that as the bones were buried in coarse-grained, sandy deposits, trampling by animals could have produced the marks. Taken as a whole, these finds made a good case for australopithecine tool making, but did not settle matters beyond reasonable doubt. Conclusive evidence was still lacking.
Such evidence has now been reported from the Kenya site of Lomekwi 3, just west of Lake Turkana. More than one hundred stone artefacts have been recovered, and at 3.3 million years old they predate even the recently-reported LD 350-1 human jawbone by half a million years. The artefacts include flakes and the cores from which they were struck. It has been shown that the cores were rotated as successive flakes were struck off, confirming that the flaking was intentional and not the result of accidental fracturing. Researchers have also managed to ‘refit’ one of the flakes back to the core from which it was struck. The tools are larger and heavier than typical Oldowan artefacts, and methods by which flakes were struck from cores was less effective. It is suggested that they represent a technology intermediate between the use of stone tools for pounding and hammering and the more flake-orientated Oldowan.
This pre-Oldowan technology has been named Lomekwian and is the final proof that hominins contemporary with Australopithecus afarensis (‘Lucy’s’ people) were making stone tools.
Harmand, S. et al., 3.3-million-year-old stone tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya. Nature 521, 310-315 (2015).