Archaeologists regularly unearth long-dead skeletons, but how do they tell how they died? An international team has re-opened one of the coldest cases in history.

An international team of archaeologists has concluded that the remains of a man discovered in a cave in South Transylvania was the victim of a violent attack nearly 33,000 years ago.

Originally discovered in 1941, archaeologists were previously unable to determine the cause of a large fracture on the right hand side of the skull. Was it damage that occurred after death, accidental injury, or the result of a malicious assault?

Now, an international team of scientists has used state-of-the-art forensic techniques to provide answer.  The team, who were led by the University of Tubingen and published their study in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, re-evaluated whether this specific fracture occurred at the time of death, or after.

They conducted experimental trauma simulations using twelve synthetic bone spheres, testing scenarios such as falls from various heights as well as single or double blows from rocks or bats. Along with these simulations, the authors inspected the fossil both visually and virtually using computed tomography technology.

The authors found there were actually two injuries at or near the time of death: a linear fracture at the base of the skull, followed by a depressed fracture on the right side of the cranial vault.

The simulations showed that these fractures strongly resemble the pattern of injury resulting from consecutive blows with a bat-like object; the positioning suggests the blow resulting in the depressed fracture came from a face-to-face confrontation, possibly with the bat in the perpetrator’s left hand. The researchers’ analysis indicates that the two injuries were not the result of accidental injury, post-mortem damage, or a fall alone.

While the fractures would have been fatal, only the fossilized skull has been found so it’s possible that bodily injuries leading to death might also have been sustained. Regardless, the authors state that the forensic evidence described in this study points to an intentionally-caused violent death, suggesting that homicide was practiced by early humans during the Upper Paleolithic.

The authors add: “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.”

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Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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