Thursday, November 24, 2011

Murder is Everywhen

I was intrigued this week to see a newspaper headline poster announcing: ‘120,000 year old crime mystery’.  While the police have a lot of dormant cases here (and everywhere else, I expect), this seemed to be excessive.  Once home I hastily searched the internet for the crime (it’s too retro to actually buy a copy of the newspaper) but came up with nothing.  It was at my university that I discovered the real story.

Fossil skull showing healed fracture (from the paper)

The University of the Witwatersrand has a first rate hominid research unit.  Most of the work revolves around the Australopithecus hominids discovered in an area not far from Johannesburg.  (A recent important find was described in )

But interest isn’t exclusive to southern African hominids, and Prof. Lynne Schepartz from the School of Anatomical Sciences has been involved in a ‘forensic’ investigation of the 120,000 year old ‘crime’ which took place in what is now Maba in China.   What they discovered was a hominid skull exhibiting a healed fracture.  (So it was attempted murder at best.)  The nature of the fracture suggested that the skull’s owner had been kyboshed with a blunt object leaving him with a severe head injury which nevertheless healed.  The interesting issue is whether this was an accident or deliberate.  From careful CT scan analysis and comparison with modern cranial injuries, the scientists decided that it was likely that the person had been attacked.  The article appeared this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

Detail from CT scan (from the paper)
Why is that interesting?  After all, most animal species fight over territory, mating, or even if in a bad mood. Usually animals don’t kill each other, but it certainly happens.  I suppose if we think of murder as the result of fighting outside the accepted cultural norms, then it becomes more of a human thing, although there will be examples from other species also.  The main difference here from animal attacks is that a weapon was used and that supposes at least some degree of premeditation.

Caveman by Tayyar Ozkan
So what was the cause of the dispute?  Of course there's no way of telling 120,000 years on, but probably it was pretty much the same as one of the reasons we have today.  Jealousy, greed, anger, madness.  Maybe this wasn’t an isolated attack, maybe it was a group battle.  Then, of course, it falls into the culturally acceptable category, mores the pity.

In any case the victim was lucky to survive.  And that is one of the most interesting aspects of the study.  It's likely that the victim would not have lived unless he received support and care from his group over a period of some time.  He may have suffered amnesia, and certainly he was in no shape to go hunting.  So the violence cloud has a silver lining.

But if this was premeditated interpersonal violence as the authors suggest, then it goes back a long way in our family tree.  Personal violence isn't any sort of phase we’re going through.  If murder-mystery writers go out of business, it will be because no one is reading their books and not because murder is a thing of the past.  Murder really is everywhen.

Michael - Thursday


  1. According to the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, sin was introduced to the world when Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden. It only took a generation before the first murder was recorded - Cain killing Abel in a frenzy of jealousy.

    Michael, "everywhen" is a wonderful word. It encapsulates decades or millennia and proves that people and motives don't change.

    Today, being Thanksgiving in the US, is a day when family members gather, maybe for the first time since last Thanksgiving. There will be tension and barely contained anger in some homes and, in others, the anger won't be contained. So much of it will be fueled by jealousy, greed, anger, madness, and the inability to forgive.

    And, still there will be the blessing of someone in the group who will take care of the injured in mind and spirit, allowing the group to try again next year.

  2. It also shows that man -- "the tool-making animal," as he/she used to be called -- waited a distressingly short time before realizing that some tools were useful as weapons.

    Not that it should be a surprise. One can only hope that it was to some extent justified: maybe the victim was an inveterate practical joker who put chokeberries in people's gruel or pulled away the rock just before someone sat down or grabbed the talking stick at sit-downs and wouldn't stop singing the local version of "My Way."

    Makes you wonder about cave paintings, too. In all the thousands of beautiful cave paintings of animals, there are almost no humans, and when humans are represented they're abstracts, almost schematics. Some scholars have theorized that there was a cultural or religious taboo about including the human image, but maybe the artists were just on the run and didn't want their pictures plastered all over the place.

    Okay, that's silly, but it's worth remembering, I guess, that the hands that crushed skulls also painted caves. I guess we haven't changed at all.

  3. This is fascinating-that the human was allowed to heal. I guess that human nature is more consistent over the years than we would like to believe. All the dark feelings are there but also the need to put it down on some sort media. Paint on rock, canvas, words on paper, on electronic device, but still the need to say "I was here." Maybe Uncle Dan's bad jokes are just another way to say that. For those who celebrate Thanksgiving, eat hearty. For those who don't, have a good day :)

  4. Frankly, Michael, based on the forensic evidence, I think it's rather obvious that the victim was bopped on the noggin by his partner when he spent too much time on Thanksgiving watching the Pterodactyls play the Tyranosoureses and too little with the in-laws.

    Happy Thanksgiving, and stay alert out there.