First evidence of human violence found

Archaeologists in Spain have discovered the first known victim of a fatal human attack, dating back 430,000 years. Is violence an inescapable part of human nature?

In northern Spain, the Sierra de Atapuerca is a small island mountain which has unlocked some of the most important mysteries of humanity’s past; it is here that archaeologists found the oldest hominid remains in Europe, which are around 886,000 years old. Now, in the Sima de los Huesos (or the ‘Pit of Bones’), scientists have uncovered what could be the ‘world’s first murder mystery’.

The victim is one of at least 28 skeletons found in the chamber in the cave system. After a skull was painstakingly pieced together from 52 bone fragments, two sharp head wounds were revealed on the left side of the forehead. The two wounds are consistent in size and fracture, leading scientists to believe that they were deliberately inflicted with some kind of tool — although that tool could have just been a rock.

One head wound could be an accident, they explain. Two suggest a ‘clear intent’ to kill. ‘It would be very unlikely to break the cranium twice in nearly the same place, accidentally,’ said the one of the study’s lead palaeontologists, Nohemi Sala.

The grim discovery sheds light on some of the earliest human behaviour. The Sima de los Huesos is only accessible by a 13m vertical shaft, and anthropologists have long been trying to answer how so many bodies collected there. Did early humans accidentally fall? Were they dragged there by animals? This latest discovery suggests not — it now seems likely that the bodies were deposited there after death by other humans, making the Pit of Bones the first example of ‘funerary’ acts.

‘Violence is a very usual behaviour for animals,’ said Sala, and it is ‘not surprising’ that early humans would occasionally turn on each other. As a species, we like to believe that we have evolved beyond the brutality of our ancestors — but you do not need to look far to see that violence is still present in humanity’s wars and weapons.

Survival of the fittest

Some believe that humans will always be violent towards each other — it’s in our genes. We see the same behaviour across the animal kingdom, and now we see that it has been a part of human life for hundreds of thousands of years. It may not be pleasant, but it is a common survival instinct — we may not have evolved so far without it.

This is a very cynical viewpoint, others respond. Humans have grown in so many ways, and our ability to reason and communicate with each other has been the most fruitful development by far. This is how we invented amazing technologies; science is now so advanced that we can even take control of our own genetics. Using the primitive behaviour of our ancestors to excuse violence is like saying that we should still live in trees. Humanity has moved on.

You Decide

  1. Will humanity ever leave its violent past behind?
  2. Do our earliest ancestors still influence our behaviour, despite all that has changed in society?

Activities

  1. Write an imaginary diary entry from the perspective of one of the pre-historic humans who witnessed this attack. What were the motivations behind it?
  2. Class debate: Humans have become more violent over time.

Some People Say...

“War is what happens when language fails.”

Margaret Atwood

What do you think?

Q & A

When did humans become human?
Modern humans, or homo sapiens, did not appear until 200,000 years ago — but humans and chimps first began to diverge around 7 or 8 million years ago. Several different hominid species developed in between these two points, displaying varying kinds of human behaviour. As they began to share and develop their collective knowledge to create more advanced tools, they slowly became more like ‘us’.
Where could we go next?
Human technology has advanced so quickly that in many ways our genes can’t keep up. For example, Europe’s explosive rise in screens is leading to more short-sighted young adults than ever before. This is why many scientists believe that human evolution is no longer a matter of natural selection; instead we will take matters into our own hands.

Word Watch

Important mysteries
Stone tools and cave paintings have been found in the mountain, and the hominid remains appear to stretch over thousands of years.
Hominid
This is the technical term for any primate species which walks on two legs, including many of the human evolutionary species. New extinct species of hominids are still being discovered to this day, slowly piecing together our complex family tree.
Left side of the forehead
This is a common place for violent head wounds even today, suggesting face-to-face combat and a right-handed opponent. There is evidence that the early humans found in the Pit of Bones were mainly right-handed.
‘Funerary’ acts
Burying the dead is another unique characteristic of being human. 70,000-year-old Neanderthal burials have been found, and Egypt’s pyramids represent some of modern humanity’s most elaborate burials.
Take control of our own genetics
The idea of genetic modification is firmly planted in the public imagination. Amazing developments in the prevention of genetic diseases are promised by new technologies — but some fear they could go too far.

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