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Evidence of brutal 33,000-year-old murder found on fossilised skull © Getty Images

Evidence of brutal 33,000-year-old murder found on fossilised skull

Published: 06th July, 2019 at 08:00
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The ancient skull holds the scars of a face-to-face confrontation.

Forensic analysis of the skull of a man who lived in the Upper Palaeolithic period suggests that he was bludgeoned to death by a stone age killer.


The fossilised skull of an adult man, known as the Cioclovina calvaria, was originally uncovered in a cave in South Transylvania, Romania, in 1941 and is thought to be around 33,000 years old.

The skull has been studied extensively in the past but the exact cause of a large fracture on the right side of the cranium has long been debated. Did it happen before or after the man died?

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Now, an international group of researchers based at the Eberhard Karls Universität in Tübingen, Germany, have reassessed the fracture using cutting-edge techniques. They created a set of 12 synthetic bone spheres, tested them in a series of different scenarios such as falls from various heights and blows from rocks or bats, and then produced 3D scans of them using technology similar to the CAT scanners used in hospitals to create detailed images of the insides of bodies.

The wound was made in a face-to-face confrontation, likely by the attacker's left hand © Kranoti et al, 2019
The wound was made in a face-to-face confrontation, likely by the attacker's left hand © Kranoti et al, 2019

They discovered that the man had suffered two injuries at or near the time of death – a straight line fracture at the base of the skull followed by a fracture on the right side of the cranium.

The simulations show that the injuries were would have been fatal and were likely to have been caused by concussive blows by a club-like object possibly held in the killer’s left hand. The positioning of the fractures suggest that they were the result of a face-to-face confrontation suggesting that the injuries resulted in an intentionally-caused violent death, the researchers say.

“The Upper Paleolithic was a time of increasing cultural complexity and technological sophistication. Our work shows that violent interpersonal behaviour and murder was also part of the behavioural repertoire of these early modern Europeans,” the researchers said.


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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Science Focus Podcast.


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