an imaginative look a palaeolithic life

Inter-species murder?

abstract murder by simon howdenOne of the things I really like about palaeoanthropology is that it’s basically forensic science, just like CSI Miami or something, but from much further back in time. They have this body, and they have to figure out who this person was and how they died… except that the body is just a few fragments of bone and they died thousands and thousands of years ago, and they’re not just trying to find out how they died, but how they lived as well.

In some cases, it kind of does end up being just like a “whodunnit” – like when they find human bones that are all covered in stone tool marks and are dumped along with animal bones that are also all covered in stone tool marks… (and there are some who will say that this is not evidence of cannibalism but that’s possibly for another blog post in the future)

…so imagine my enthusiasm upon coming across claims of inter-species murder, or more specifically, that a particular neanderthal whose skeleton was discovered many years ago was thought to have been murdered by a Homo sapiens. This seemed to me to be quite an outrageous claim, especially as the alleged murder victim died fifty thousand years ago or earlier, and Homo sapiens has a pretty solid alibi in that they had yet to leave Africa according to conventional theories. It’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that stone tool marks on an individual’s ribs were caused by another human in an act of malice. I mean this is humans we’re talking about; I’m pretty sure the first victim of attempted or actual murder with a stone tool lived not very long after the invention of stone tools. So claims of murder are not so far fetched… but knowing what species of human did it…? Well that warranted a second look…

brick by zirconicussoI haven’t actually managed to read the journal article yet, having only read this from less academic sources, so I may be mistaken on some of the details here, but from what I understand, the suggestion is that based on the kind of damage done to a pig’s rib cage by reconstructed stone age weapons, the closest match to the marks on the rib cage of the individual in question, was the damage done to the pig by a throwing spear. That’s all well and good, however I’m still inclined to think that it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that it was a Homo sapiens who threw the spear. Possible, yes. But just because neanderthals didn’t generally use projectile weapons, does not mean they didn’t ever throw stuff around or at each other sometimes. I mean a neanderthal spear is not very aerodynamic, but that doesn’t make it impossible to throw. A brick is not very aerodynamic either but someone could still throw a brick at someone in a fit of rage and injure them, and the same could apply to a neanderthal spear, even though it wasn’t designed for throwing:

A and B have a big argument. A walks away in a huff, B angrily throws his spear, which he happened to be holding at the time, at A. B didn’t expect the spear to actually hit A, but beginner’s luck comes into play, kind of like when someone manages to get a triple-twenty the first time they try to play darts, even though their throwing technique more closely resembles a toddler throwing his toys around than a professional darts player… so anyway, the spear actually manages to hit A in the ribs, hard enough to pierce his lung. He goes back to his cave struggling to breathe but his other lung is still functioning so he doesn’t die, and B helps to look after him feeling really guilty about throwing the spear, but then A’s wound gets a nasty infection which becomes pleurisy, causing him to die a couple of weeks later. B never recovers from the remorse he feels because he really didn’t mean to hurt A. Well that’s kind of stretching the evidence a bit too far (err… a lot too far, I have too much imagination for my own good sometimes), but you get the general idea – just because neanderthals didn’t typically use projectile weapons for hunting, doesn’t mean they can’t deliberately or accidentally kill each other by throwing stuff in a fit of rage. I mean slightly smaller range of movement in the shoulder joint or not, I don’t believe they were incapable and/or unwilling to ever throw anything for any reason ever. They were probably better at throwing things than the average city dwelling, sedentary Homo sapiens who can’t even accurately throw a paper ball into a bin at a distance of 3-4 metres.

Additionally (and here I may be mistaken on the details) – a hunting weapon designed to take down a large animal such as a deer, ought to be able to do enough damage to a human to kill them quickly, not die a slow and agonising death that was drawn out over a number of weeks. If it was a purpose build projectile hunting weapon, surely it would have killed the man a lot more quickly? I mean if you’re hunting a deer, you want to kill it right away, not wait until it collapses several days later. This scenario is kind of more consistent with someone throwing something other than a purpose built throwing spear at the victim.

Anyway it’s a very interesting study and it’ll be great when I finally track down the actual journal article. For now, I think I need a new category for my blog, a “theories I haven’t decided if I disagree with or not just yet, pending a more thorough view of the evidence” cateogory. And really, it is pretty amazing that people can try to solve murder mysteries from 50,000 years ago!

pictures: top: image courtesy of Simon Howden / ; middle: image courtesy of zirconicusso /


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