Lethal wounds on skull may indicate 430,000 year-old murder

The facts happened in the Sima de los Huesos, en Atapuerca (Burgos, Spain) and they endorse also the intentional corpses accumulation in this deposit


Lethal wounds identified on a human skull in the Sima de los Huesos (Atapuerca, Burgos, Spain) may indicate one of the first cases of murder in human history, some 430,000 years ago, according to a study published May 27 2015 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE. Eudald Carbonell, IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social) archeologist is one of the authors of the research.

Cranium 17 from the Sima de los Huesos
Cranium 17 from the Sima de los Huesos – Javier Trueba/Madrid Scientific Films

The archeological site, Sima de los Huesos in northern Spain, is located deep within an underground cave system and contains the skeletal remains of at least 28 individuals that date to around 430,000 years ago, during the Middle Pleistocene. The only access to the site is through a 13-meter deep vertical shaft, and how the human bodies arrived there remains a mystery.

Modern forensic techniques

A nearly complete skull, Cranium 17 from the Sima de los Huesos, is comprised of 52 cranial fragments recovered during excavations at the site over the last 20 years. This skull shows two penetrating lesions on the frontal bone, above the left eye. Relying on modern forensic techniques, such as contour and trajectory analysis of the traumas, the authors of the study showed that both fractures were likely produced by two separate impacts by the same object, with slightly different trajectories around the time of the individual’s death. According to the authors, the injuries are unlikely to be the result of an accidental fall down the vertical shaft. Rather, the type of fracture, their location, and that they appear to have been produced by two blows with the same object lead the authors to interpret them as the result of an act of lethal interpersonal aggression—or what may constitute the earliest case of murder in human history.

Furthermore, if this individual was already dead, the authors found that they were likely carried to the top of the vertical shaft by other humans. The authors suggest that humans were likely responsible for the accumulation of bodies in the Sima de los Huesos, which supports the idea that this site represents early evidence of funerary behavior.


Sala N, Arsuaga JL, Pantoja-Pérez A, Pablos A, Martínez I, Quam RM, et al. (2015) Lethal Interpersonal Violence in the Middle Pleistocene. PLoS ONE 10(5): e0126589. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0126589

Neanderthals were attacked by large carnivores

It has been confirmed by a paper published in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences based on a forensic investigation led by IPHES scientifics

The paper highlights the importance that predation had on human evolution and the strong pressure existed between neanderthals and large carnivores

The research will enable forensic medicine the possibility of identifying marks left in corspeses by such animals


When speaking of Neanderthals one of the qualities attributed to them is that they were very good hunters, but now it has been proven that they were also victims of the attacks of large carnivores. This is revealed in a paper led by IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social) published in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. Three members of this institution have contributed to the research: Edgard Camarós (first author), Carlos Lorenzo and Florent Rivals.

The authors base their conclusion on a methodological study of 140 current forensic case reports from all around the world whose patients and victims presented traumatisms caused by carnivores such as lions, tigers, bears and leopards, among others. “We have compared the forensic reports with the Neanderthal fossil record. Current traumatology is similar to that one found in Pleistocene hominids. Same pattern is observed and therefore we infer that Neanderthals were also attacked by large carnivores”, says Edgard Camarós. In this sense, a particular example is discussed as a proof of concept in the paper, the case of the remains of a neanderthal child found in Cova Negra (Valencia, Spain), with marks of a large carnivore on the skull.”This remarks the importance that predation has on human evolution, and the strong pressure that existed between neanderthals and large carnivores during Prehistory”, adds Edgard Camarós.

cova Negra right parietal with punctures
Cova Negra right parietal with punctures

But the research goes further, forensic medicine can benefit from this research because it is now possible to identify an offending carnivore involved in a human attack due to the traumatic pattern present in a body. “And this is something that forensic science needed”, says Edgard Camarós. In addition, he remarks: “The use of forensic medicine to explain the past provides useful information and provides new approaches between sciences and transfer of knowledge”.

Despite IPHES, the research has also involved scientifics from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) and the Universitat de València (UV).


Camarós, E., Cueto, M., Lorenzo, C., Villaverde, V., Rivals, F. “Large carnivore attacks on hominins during the Pleistocene: a forensic approach with a neanderthal example”, Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. (2015).



The IPHES hosts a symposium between Israeli and Catalan researchers on the origin, evolution and use of the first human technologies

  • It will take place from the 5th to the 7th of May and has been made possible thanks to one out of only 10 grants accorded by the Generalitat for research activities between Catalonia and Israel
  • It aims to promote a new research network in human evolution between the parties
  • It will be an excellent opportunity for Israeli researchers to get to know better the IPHES research center

Program – Photos catalàespañol

Knowing the origins of the raw materials used by early hominins that created stone tool technology, as well as understanding the uses and evolution of these objects, is at the center of debates about human evolution that are raising much interest today. In this sense, both in Catalonia and in Israel, there are groups working on key sites that may provide evidence to help to resolve these issues. This is the case of IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana I Evolució Social) who received one of only 10 grants awarded in 2014 by the Government of Catalonia to organize symposia between and Catalan and Israeli researchers and to develop projects in common on an international level.

Hence arose the symposium: The Evolution of Raw material use – evidence from the Pleistocene of Africa and western Eurasia, which will take place at IPHES from the 5th to the 7th of May, organized in collaboration with the Institute of Archaeology of The Hebrew University of (HUJ). The aim is to promote cooperative research between IPHES-URV, located in Tarragona, and HUJ and other collaborating Israeli institutions.

But this relationship has some experience already. In the last five years, both institutions have intensified scientific exchange through seminars, conferences, exchange of researchers, Israeli students participating in Catalan excavations, student mobility, etc. In this manner, the Symposium could contribute to building an even stronger research network between Israeli and Catalan scientists. The meeting will also be an excellent opportunity to present IPHES and the hosting city of Tarragona to Israeli guests.

Lines of Research
14 researchers will be taking part in the Symposium; 7 from Israel and 7 from Catalonia. Both the Israeli and IPHES-URV researchers have lines of research in Africa and Eurasia. The institutions excavate and analyze from a multidisciplinary point of view the stone tools made by hominins, covering a timespan from 2.5 million years ago to around 200,000 years. The aim is to better understand the behavior of these hominins.


Participants will present results from their latest studies on stone tools, their types and uses, and their evolution over time. In this way, they will find synergies between Israeli and Catalan teams that will be the basis for new lines of research between the institutions, with the contribution of both veteran investigators and young students who want to dedicate themselves to research.

Among the key questions that researchers are trying to answer: how and when the hominins that were the authors of the oldest tools of humankind occupied different regions of the Earth, defining their technologies and how and why they were used. In this context, some of the sites under consideration include Barranco León and Fuente Nueva 3 in Orce (Granada), where IPHES has developed a major research project.

Indeed, participants will have the opportunity to consult important collections of stone tools that are in IPHES, such as Orce, between 1.3 and 1.4 million years old, as well as Gran Dolina (Atapuerca, Burgos) and Barranc de la Boella (La Canonja), between 800,000 years and one million years old. Barranc de la Boella is one of two sites in the area of Tarragona that the participants will visit, along with the Cansaladeta (La Riba).

The promotion of international relations
The Symposium was made possible thanks to financial aid for the holding of such joint initiatives between Catalonia and Israel – Joint Symposia (SymIL) awarded by the Direcció General de Recerca del Departament d’Economia i Coneixement (DEC ). The program is based on fostering partnerships between research groups from the two regions to promote strong relationships and develop strong links to advance knowledge transfer and commercialization of research results. It has the support of the Agència de Gestió d’Ajuts Universitaris i de Recerca (AGAUR), whose latest call has provided aid for only 10 symposia, this one at IPHES being one of them.

City tour
In Tarragona, IPHES has also received the support from the City Council (patron of this research center), who will offer a reception for participants to the Symposium in the Jaume I courtyard of the City Hall, as well as guided tour of the Roman and Medieval city of Tarragona.

Researchers of IPHES has taken part in an investigation that identifies a case of ritual cannibalism about 14,500 years ago in Great Britain

The hominids that inhabited Gough’s Cave used also skulls as bowls, probably within a symbolic treatment of the bodies

The research was led by researchers at the Natural History Museum of London and University College of London


More than a century ago were found human remains from 14,700 years old in Gough’s Cave (Somerset, UK). Since then, several researchers have obtained different information about these fossils. In this context,  new research led by the Natural History Museum (NHML) and University College of London (UCL), in which have participated three members of IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social) has proven that those hominids were cannibals and also used the skulls of their peers as bowls, probably within a ritual treatment of the bodies.

One jaw from the human remains set of Gough's Cave
One jaw from the human remains set of Gough’s Cave – IPHES

These conclusions are disclosed in an article published in April in the Journal of Human Evolution. The study, which has as principal authors Dr. Silvia Bello and Dr. Simon Parfitt of the Natural History Museum of London, are co-authored by Palmira Saladié, Isabel Cáceres and Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo, researchers of IPHES.

Human remains from Gough’s Cave were recovered for the most part in 1880 and later in 1903. There are bones of whole skeleton of several individuals. In the same cave also was recovered a mammoth carving and thousands of Palaeolithic flint tools.

Simon Parfitt of University College of London (first line left), Silvia Bello of the Natural History Museum of london (second line, in the left of image) next to Isabel Cáceres IPHES. Palmira Saladié on bBack
Simon Parfitt of University College of London (first line left), Silvia Bello of the Natural History Museum of london (second line, in the left of image) next to Isabel Cáceres IPHES. Palmira Saladié on back – IPHES

“Recently using modern techniques of radiocarbon dating (carbon-14), researchers from UCL and NHML discovered that the bones found in this cave had been deposited over a very short period around 14,700 years ago, perhaps in several events”, say Palmira Saladié.

Now, in the latest study, published in the Journal of Human Evolution, the researchers used three-dimensional imaging techniques to examine human remains found in the cave. So, they have identified on the bones of hominids cut marks (striae made stone tools during the skinning and defleshing of the bodies), bone fractures for marrow consumption and abundant human tooth marks, “the irrefutable proof of cannibalism”, asserts the same researcher.

The skulls are treated differently because they broke with care, shaping bowl. “In fact, its form shows many similarities with those recovered in the Cueva del Mirador, in the Sierra de Atapuerca. Nevertheless, this deposit have a younger age because is related with the shepherds of the Bronze Age”, noted Palmira Saladié.

In a broader context, the treatment of human corpses and the manufacture and use of skull-cup in Gough Cave have parallels with other Palaeolithic sites in central and western Europe. This suggests that cannibalism during the Magdalenian was part of a common mortuary practice that combines the processing and consumption of bodies with the ritual use of skull-cup, according the conclusions of this group of researchers.

The opportunity to participate in this study for Isabel Cáceres, Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo and Palmira Saladié all from IPHES, grew out of the work done in a researcher program of the AGAUR (Agency for Management of University and Research Grants) “Projectes Batista i Roca” specifically for collaboration between Catalan and English institutions (call 2011), being the principal investigator Andreu Ollé, also member of IPHES.

For further information:

Silvia M. Bello, Palmira Saladié, Isabel Cáceres, Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo, Simon A. Parfitt. “Upper Palaeolithic ritualistic cannibalism at Gough’s Cave (Somerset, UK): The human remains from head to toe”. Journal of Human Evolution, 2015; DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2015.02.016