Tag Archives: forensic

The face of a man whose head was mounted on a stake 8,000 years ago

More than 8,000 years ago in Sweden, a man nicknamed “Ludvig” was murdered and had his head mounted on a spike. Now, a forensic artist employed a combination of archaeology, genetics, and computer-aided modeling to restore the man’s face as it may have looked before Ludvig met his tragic end.

The face of Ludvig

Archaeologists found the man’s cranium — along with others belonging to several adults and one infant — inside boggy sediment at the Kanaljorden site in Motala, Sweden, in 2012. The remains, which also included animal bones, were discovered on a stone platform submerged in the middle of a small lake.

All adult skulls bore signs of trauma prior to their death, which suggests they met a violent end. Remnants of wooden stakes were found inside the skulls of two of the men, one of them being Ludvig, suggesting their heads were mounted to stakes. This is a very odd ritual for those times. Decapitation and subsequent staking didn’t become common until thousands of years later, particularly in the Middle Ages.

Ludvig’s facial reconstruction in progress. Credit: Oscar Nilsson.

Swedish forensic artist Oscar Nilsson was impressed by the story of this mysterious Mesolithic hunter-gatherer murder when he was contacted by archaeologists two years ago to perform a facial reconstruction. He decided to use all modern resources at his disposal to bring Ludvig’s face back to life, complete with all of Ludvig’s individual quirks.

Nilsson first scanned the skull of the Mesolithic man who died in his 50s and then printed a 3D plastic replica of it. The jaw was missing, which proved very problematic during the reconstruction process. The forensic artist estimated the size and shape of the jaw using a lengthy and complex process. Thankfully, Ludvig’s DNA was easy to sequence, revealing his ancestry, as well as important physical characteristics such as hair, eye, and skin color.

Credit: Oscar Nilsson.

Animal remains from the site, including those belonging to boar, elk, bears, and badgers served as inspiration for other elements in the reconstruction. For instance, Nilsson dressed Ludvig in the skin of a wild boar and lent him a hairstyle inspired by these animals. The front of Ludvig’s hairstyle is similar to the short bristles on the boar’s body, while the back features a wisp of hair reminiscent of the tail. This “is of course purely speculative, but such a specific and dramatic finding calls for a matching interpretation,” Nilsson told Gizmodo.

Credit: Oscar Nilsson.

A scar corresponding to a prominent one-inch wound on the top of his skull, which showed signs of healing, according to a 2018 study by Swedish archaeologists, was also added. A dash of white body paint on Ludvig’s chest — a fashion known to be practiced among Stone Age people — completed the man’s look.

A mysterious end

Archaeologists don’t know exactly how Ludvig died. All adult skulls retrieved at the Kanaljorden site exhibited signs of trauma. The females sustained repeated injuries on the back and side of the head, while the males suffered from a single blow on the top of the head.

Why Ludvig’s head ended up on a stake is even more of an enigma. Mesolithic hunter-gatherers tended to bury their dead, even those of their enemies. Decapitating foes, as a form of trophy hunting or warning, became a practice much later in history.

What we know for sure is that, for whatever reason, the two skulls from the archaeological dig in Sweden were at one point mounted on stakes and later laid to rest in the shallow lakebed on the stone platform with the other hunter-gatherer remains.

Now, 8,000 years later, Ludvig’s story has resurfaced in a fantastic reconstruction that blends archaeology, history, and art.

This article originally appeared in July 2021.

Case closed: scientists solve 33,000-year-old murder case

A person in Transylvania was killed by a left-handed person using a bat-like object. The crime took place 33,000 years ago.

The Cioclovina skull has two large fractures on it — likely from interpersonal violence during the Upper Paleolithic. Image credits: Kranioti, EF. et al. PLOS ONE. 2019.

Walking through the lush forests near the Cioclovina Cave in Romania, you get a sense of peace and tranquility that’s rarely present in modern Europe. However, these lands weren’t always so peaceful: one of the world’s coldest murder cases on record took place in the area. A man was mysteriously killed 33,000 years ago.

All that’s left of the murder victim is a skull, which was discovered in the cave in 1941 by phosphate miners. Previous studies established that the skull belonged to an adult man and sustained heavy injuries, but couldn’t establish whether the injuries were inflicted before or after he died. So, a team of international researchers from Greece, Romania, and Germany took another crack at the case.

The new study concluded that not only the injuries were sustained during his life, but they were the reason he died.

“What our study shows is that this man was killed as a result of blunt force trauma” to his skull, said study senior author Katerina Harvati, a professor of paleoanthropology at the University of Tübingen in Germany. “The extent of the injuries that he sustained would have led to death. As to how or why this came about, we can only speculate.”

“Our results clearly showed that the fracture patterns observed on this skull could not have been produced after death, or from an accidental fall,” she added.

The location and position of the injuries also offer some insight as to how the crime actually occurred. Due to their geometry, it seems that the man and his aggressor were standing (or sitting) face to face, and since the injuries are on the right side of the skull, it appears that the killer was a leftie.

In order to confirm these hypotheses, the team used a CT scan to get a better view of the damage, and then produced 12 synthetic skull-like structures, subjecting them to different types of trauma. They dropped it to simulate falling and hit it with multiple types of objects. This showed that the damage was not accidental and was not produced by falling — instead, they were caused by a bat-like object.

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Ancient CSI: Scientists investigate 430,000 year old Murder

Anthropologists have uncovered a 430,000 year old homo skull with fatal wounds that represents the earliest identified murder case in human history.

Researchers used a 3D model to analyze the skull’s two fractures in detail. Photo: Sala et al., PLOS ONE

The almost complete skull called Cranium 17, was discovered broken into 52 pieces and buried under a layer of clay in a cave shaft.

Scientists used modern forensic techniques and discovered that the victim was probably killed by two blows to the head, and then was tossed up against a cave shaft. They employed the help of 3D imaging to analyze the fractures up close and visualize the trajectory of each wound; they found that both wounds were likely caused by the same object.

“Furthermore,” the team adds, “the fractures show different orientations and different trajectories, implying that each fracture was caused by an independent impact.”

In other words, the victim was smacked on the head two times with the same object. It wasn’t an accident – it was an intentional murder.

“In the case of Cr-17 it is also possible to rule out the injuries as either self-inflicted or resulting from an unintentional hunting accident, mainly because the lesions involve multiple blows,” they add. “Based on the absence of cut marks, other potential postmortem manipulations (e.g., cannibalism, ritual manipulations, etc.) seem even less likely and more speculative.”

Furthermore, there seems to be a clear intention to kill.

“Given that either of the two traumatic events was likely lethal, the presence of multiple blows implies an intention to kill.”

Sima de los Huesos.

The researchers, led by Dr Nohemi Sala, from the UCM-ISCIII Centre for the Evolution and Human Behaviour in Madrid, added:

“This represents the earliest clear case of deliberate, lethal interpersonal aggression in the hominin fossil record, demonstrating that this is an ancient human behaviour.”

The bones were found in a cave called Sima de los Huesos – the “pit of bones” – in northern Spain. The Sima de los Huesos is a well known anthropological point, with numerous findings being reported there. In 2013, researchers found the oldest human DNA ever reported at the same cave.

It’s unclear whether the murderer threw the body in the shaft to get rid of the evidence, or whether the victim was buried there with a religious ceremony. Researchers are now searching for other bodies in other shafts of the cave to see if this was a common practice.