Study concludes 33,000-year-old-skull shows signs of blunt force trauma

Some 33,000 years ago, a man was violently clubbed to death by a left-handed attacker wielding a club or similar object. That’s the conclusion of an international team of scientists, who published the results of their forensic analysis in a recent paper in PLOS ONE.

The so-called Cioclovina calvaria is a fossilized skull around 33,000 years old, discovered in a cave in South Transylvania in 1941 during a mining operation.

That makes it one of the earliest fossilized human remains yet known, so naturally it’s been studied extensively by scientists interested in learning more about the Upper Paleolithic period, which started around 40,000 to 45,000 years, and marks the major dispersal of modern humans in Europe.

“The Cioclovina individual is particularly important, as it is one of the earliest and relatively complete skulls of modern Europeans from the Upper Paleolithic period,” co-author Katerina Harvati of Eberhard Karls University of Tubingen in Germany told Live Science. “Human remains from this period are very rare and often very fragmentary.”

It was eventually determined be the skull of a male, and earlier researchers had noted that there were two small, healed scars on the frontal bone—evidence of some kind of trauma that occurred sufficiently prior to death to give the damaged area time to remodel (antemortem).

That is largely undisputed, but there was also a large fracture on the right parietal lobe. And scholars disagreed on whether this was evidence for blunt force trauma and possibly the man’s cause of death (a perimortem injury). Alternatively, the fracture could have developed after death (postmortem). The fact that it isn’t described in the original 1942 publication describing the then-newly discovered skull lends some support to this latter view, but not enough to settle the debate once and for all.

So Havarti partnered with two colleagues—Elena Kranioti of the University of Crete and Dan Grigorescu of the University of Bucharest—to conduct a more thorough forensic analysis. The team made CT scans of the skull, the better to study the fracture patterns. They also simulated the head trauma with 12 synthetic bone spheres, filled with ballistic gelatin to mimic the human brain. They dropped balls from varying heights, and administered single blows with a rock, a “bat-like object,” and a baseball bat under different scenarios.

There are well-established forensic techniques for determining whether this kind of trauma likely occurred anti-, peri-, or post-mortem. Head trauma that shows signs of remodeling—the formation of callouses on longer bones, for instance, or bony bridges forming in the cranium—is a strong indication that the injury occurred antemortem, at least five to seven days before death. There won’t be signs of this remodeling for peri- or post-mortem injuries, which is the case for the Cioclovina calvaria.

It’s a bit tricker to distinguish between the latter two cases, and forensic analysts typically study the unique fraction patterns to do so. For instance, the fracture will propagate along paths of least resistance in a perimortem injury, and its direction will form an acute or obtuse angle. There may also be flakes of bone at the impact site for a perimortem injury. A postmortem fracture would have none of these elements.

“[Our results] closely matched with the expected patterns for blunt force trauma.”

The CT scans revealed at least two fractures with no signs of remodeling, showing the telltale signs of perimortem injury. One was a linear fracture along the base of the skull, and the second was the depressed fracture previously observed. Both fractures show the telltale signs of perimortem injury, according to the authors—most likely the result of blows from a bat-like object, probably wielded by a left-handed attacker facing his (or her) victim.

“Our results clearly showed that the fracture patterns observed on this skull could not have been produced after death, or from an accidental fall,” Harvati told Live Science. “Instead, they closely matched with the expected patterns for blunt force trauma (i.e., trauma inflicted with a blunt instrument, such as a club, for example) to the head. The extent of the injuries that he sustained would have led to death. As to how or why this came about, we can only speculate.”

It’s also an indication that violence was very much a part of this period in human history. “The Upper Paleolithic was a time of increasing cultural complexity and technological sophistication,” the authors wrote. “Our work shows that violent interpersonal behaviour and murder was also part of the behavioral repertoire of these early modern Europeans.”

DOI: , 2019. 10.1371/journal.pone.0216718  (About DOIs).

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