Researchers have discovered how a man was killed in a prehistoric cave in Spain over 5,000 years ago after applying modern forensic techniques to the fractured skull.
The skull was found during an excavation at the archaeological site of Cova Foradada in the north-eastern Spanish region of Catalonia in 1999, but the cause of death has just been discovered now.
The results of the research have been published in the International Journal of Paleopathology.
Miguel Angel Moreno-Ibanez, 25, the main researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES), said the skull belongs to a collective burial during the Neolithic period and is about 5,000 years old.
The man, who was said to be in his 50s, died at a time when our ancestors were forming into small communities and increasingly warring among themselves for resources, according to researchers who logged a dramatic increase in the number of killings based on the injuries people suffered around this time as evidenced in their remains.
Experts used “observation techniques, X-ray, and tomography” to find out how the skull was broken and what weapon had been used.
“The skull fracture has allowed us to find out the kind of item used to cause the death of this individual, as well as the direction of the blow,” Mr Moreno-Ibanez said.
The head injury was analysed with forensic techniques and is located in the right parietal area of the skull. It does not show any evidence of having healed.
“The angle of the fracture tells us that it was a perimortem trauma, so at the moment of death,” Mr Moreno-Ibanez said.
Experts believe a strong blow to the head with a heavy object was the cause of death.
Regarding the weapon used, the researcher explained that “it was like a small-sized hoe, very common in the Neolithic period that was used as a weapon instead of a normal hand tool”.
“The injury was done from behind and probably by a right-handed attacker,” Mr Moreno-Ibanez said.
He added that the victim probably did not see it coming.
There is also evidence showing that the tool used by the attacker was removed from the head after the blow as there is a portion of bone left partially sunk inside.
The man also has two antemortem fractures, in the occipital and the right area, that were healed, and a post-mortem fracture in the lower occipital area.
Regarding the antemortem injuries, Moreno-Ibanez said that they are from years before the man's death: “Often, a confrontation did not always end up with death, so it could have been caused in another confrontation or by accident.
“There is a high incidence of skull injuries from that time.”
While it was confirmed that the man was killed, the reasons why are unknown.
“We have several possibilities, an intergroup confrontation, a confrontation against another group”, but the exact reasons are a mystery.
Around 5,000 years ago, at the end of the Neolithic era, communities were agricultural societies, living in groups that are not very big.
“There is an exponential increase in violent deaths at that time,” Mr Moreno-Ibanez said.
“They start to produce food, they are not hunting and gathering anymore, and therefore there are permanent communities living in the same place.”
He also explained that in comparison to previous times, these communities had control over the territory and fought to control “crop areas or even to steal supplies from other communities”.
The skull was found in a collective burial site with around 18 individual remains located in a cave, which was the common burial ritual of the time.
“The bodies are left inside the cave, not buried, and some people believe that the entrance of the cave was closed with a stone or wood so that animals were not able to go inside, although they finally managed to go in, as is seen clearly in the remains,” Mr Moreno-Ibanez said.
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