Paleolithic skull found in Transylvania provides scientists an ancient murder mystery

An early human skull from 33,000 years ago has been examined by scientists and now they have an ancient murder mystery on their hands.

Unearthed in Transylvania in what is now the nation of Romania in 1941, a skull from the Paleolithic era dubbed Cioclovina calvaria “is among the earliest directly dated and relatively well preserved, modern humans known from Europe.”

Little did the finders of the skull know at the time that their discovery would reveal a murder mystery that will likely never be fully solved.

The Cioclovina calvaria skull is currently held by the Bucharest University Laboratory of Paleontology, Vertebrate Paleontology collection. Among the main features of the skull are fractures that look like the ancient human’s head was struck by an object of some kind.

Naturally, many causes of the fractures have been suggested such as an accidental fall or a random bump on the head. But a team of researchers wanted to study the adult male skull for themselves to assess the damage and find out what happened.

Using a CT scanner, the team identified two separate blows, a linear fracture at the base of the skull, and a depressed fracture (DF) on the right side of the cranial vault.

They also analyzed the fractures for any signs of healing that would indicate the early human was taken care of until he succumbed to his wounds.

“The lack of healing of the DF strongly indicates that it was the fatal injury—although we cannot rule out the possibility of additional injuries on the rest of the body, which is not preserved in the fossil record,” the team wrote in their report published by Plos One.

The team then performed experimental simulations using artificial bone spheres in order to figure out how the fractures occurred.

Artificial bone spheres filled with ballistic gelatin to simulate the human head were employed to test different scenarios for the inflicted injuries. The main objective was to establish the most likely sequence of events that led to Cioclovina’s death by comparing its facture patterns with the ones observed under controlled experiments (Fig 6). The Cioclovina DF pattern strongly resembles a depressed fracture caused by a round club-like object on a free-standing head.

Image via Plos One

In short, Cioclovina was the victim of a fatal blow delivered by another human.

The amount of evidence from the forensic analysis helped the team reach a pretty clear conclusion. This injury was not only not accidental: It was perpetrated by another person, perhaps more than one. The lack of healing proves that Cioclovina died quickly. And the team was even able to deduce that the ancient assailant may have likely been left-handed.

Here is their conclusion via the report:

The combined evidence produced by the application of clear-cut forensic criteria and experimental data indicates that the pattern of the Cioclovina fractures is inconsistent with post-mortem damage, or with injuries sustained due to a fall alone, or with an accidental injury due to roof fall debris. Rather, they were sustained from multiple blows to the head with a club-like instrument, or from a combination of a fall and a blow to the head. The lack of any signs of healing associated with these fractures indicates that the Cioclovina individual did not survive these lesions. It is not clear whether the LF alone could have caused his death.

However, a depressed fracture of the extent and magnitude of the Cioclovina DF would have caused fatal brain injuries resulting in a quick demise. The location of this lesion suggests that it was inflicted by a blow from a likely left-handed perpetrator facing the victim. This may have been a result of a one to one conflict or murder by one or more perpetrators. Severe interpersonal conflict leading to death is therefore the hypothesis that is best supported by our findings. Forensic evidence suggests that this early modern European suffered a violent death caused intentionally by another human.

Image via Plos One

At this particular point in human history, our ancestors were spreading out from Africa into Europe and elsewhere, which contributed to the demise of the Neanderthals, who were not so different from us after all according to recent archaeological finds.

Settlements and campsites began to emerge, as did the development of more complex social groupings and better communication. However, these changes also resulted in changes to human behavior, which may have led to Cioclovina’s death. Could he have been killed by someone close to him? Perhaps a disagreement with a friend or out of jealousy by a neighbor? Nobody knows.

Regardless, the team concluded Cioclovina was murdered and that homicide occurred among early humans.

Both forensic trauma pattern analysis and experimental models exclude a postmortem origin for the Cioclovina fractures. Rather, they indicate two incidents of blunt force trauma, the second clearly inflicted with a club-like object. The magnitude and extent of the lesions and the lack of signs of healing indicate a fatal injury. The Upper Paleolithic period is noted for intensified technological innovation, increased symbolic behavior, and cultural complexity. We show that the behavioural repertoire of the earliest modern Europeans also comprised violent inter-personal interactions and murder.

We will never know the motive for the murder, nor who the murderer is, but the manner in which Cioclovina was killed has now been recorded and may forever be the oldest cold homicide case in history.

Featured Image: Plos One

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