One of the biggest misconceptions about American life, and the world at large, is that crime rates are at all-time highs. In fact, they've been falling for decades, even if many people still long for the alleged safety and security of the olden days. Those same people might be surprised to learn that even in the really, really olden days of about 430,000 BCE, early humans showed the capacity for deliberate violence.
Scientists at Binghamton University have analyzed fatal wounds on a 430,000-year-old skull, and believe that they have uncovered one of the oldest murder cases known to man. The skeletal remains in question were found at an archaeological site in Spain, where at least 28 other skeletons were also discovered.
"Evidence for interpersonal violence in the human fossil record is relatively scarce, and this would appear to represent the coldest cold case on record," said Binghamton University anthropologist Rolf Quam. The skull uncovered by Quam and his team has two large cracks above the left eye, which analysts determined were made by the same object. Since it would have been highly unlikely for an object to accidentally strike the same individual multiple times, researchers believe the wounds were a product of "lethal interpersonal aggression." Additionally, the dozens of other skeletons found at the site are thought to be evidence of a mass burial.
"This is really good evidence for an intentional role for humans in the accumulation of bodies at the bottom of this pit, and suggests the hominins from this time period were already engaging in complex cognitive behaviors," continued Quam.
Our stereotypes of early humans and "cavemen" are all about aggressive, brutish behavior, but this paradoxical discovery complicates that idea. Sure, early humans were violent, but that violence seems to have been accompanied by cognitive skill. And one has to wonder whether these early humans simply wanted to dispose of the dead in one place, or were engaging in a primitive religious ritual.
While it may be impossible to get to the bottom of this ancient mystery, we can take comfort in knowing that the culprit will very likely never kill again.
There is evidence that humans are predisposed to behave violently in certain contexts, explains Richard Wrangham, professor of biology and anthropology at Harvard University. But the more we're aware of it, the more we can do about it.
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