A report in the November 21 issue of PNAS opens a sobering window into the lives and deaths of Ice Age humans. The report analyses a skull found in China and dating to 126,000 years ago and showing clear evidence of blunt force trauma.
[See photo, left. This is the right superolateral view of the Maba cranium showing the position (A) and detail (B) of the depressed lesion. Credit: University of the Witwatersrand.]
Was it aggression or an accident, deliberate violence or just an sharp but unlucky bump to the head? No one knows for sure. Based on comparison with similar findings, however, researchers suspect human-to-human violence.
One thing that makes this discovery stand out is its early date. Quite possibly, it is the earliest known evidence of human aggression against another human being.
The injury was not fatal. The trauma to the skull shows clear evidence of healing. For researchers, this healing is proof that the victim lived months and possibly years after the injury, quite possibly because of care offered by fellow Middle Pleistocene humans. If true, then the skull may be evidence of human caring as well as human violence.
According to Prof. Lynne Scheparz, one of the authors of the study, “this wound is very similar to what is observed today when someone is struck forcibly with a heavy blunt object. As such it joins a small sample of Ice Age humans with probable evidence of humanly induced trauma, and could possibly be the oldest example of interhuman aggression and human induced trauma documented.”
At the same time, the skull’s “remodelled, healed condition also indicates the survival of a serious brain injury, a circumstance that is increasingly documented for archaic and modern Homo through the Pleistocene,” according to Schepartz. In other words, this skull is not unusual in suggesting that ancient humans cared for each other after serious brain injury. As Schepartz puts it in a press release from the University of Witwatersrand, this individual “would have needed social support and help in terms of care and feeding to recover from this wound."
According to the report itself, “the lesion…appears most likely to have been the result of a localized, blunt force trauma, sufficiently strong to produce the concentric ridges, the external depression, and the internal bulge. At the same time, the bone was extensively remodeled…Such remodeling minimally takes several months to develop,” possibly longer.
According to the report, it “is probable that it [the injury] was the result of an interpersonal altercation, with blunt-force trauma, given its form, but accidental injury cannot be excluded. It may be the oldest such case known…”
The report provides a sobering picture of the past. A single skull provides what might be the oldest snapshot of human violence and human caring, a scant 14mm in length but a powerfully accurate view of the best and the worst in us.
The report, “New evidence of interhuman aggression and human induced trauma 126,000 years ago, was published in the November 21, 2011 issue of PNAS.