Tag Archives: paleolithic

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.

Archaeologists find first prehistoric figurative cave art in the Balkans

The cave art, which was first discovered in 2010, has now been shown to be truly figurative. It could be as old as 34,000 years old.

Composite of digital tracings of 1 Bison_2 ibex and 3 possible anthropomorphic figures from cave art – Credit Aitor Ruiz-Redondo

Ancient artists

An international team of researchers from Britain, France, Canada, Spain, and Croatia analyzed the cave paintings found in Romualdova Pećina (Romuald’s Cave), Croatia. Radiocarbon dating showed that these works are at least 17,000 years old, but judging by other indirect data (such as the dating of the cave sedimentary layers), the paintings might even date from 34,000 years ago. Further research will be conducted in order to establish the precise age of the rock art. But more important is the nature of these paintings. Although not very visible to the naked eye, digital recordings and image amplification techniques have revealed that the paintings represent a bison, an ibex, and two possible anthropomorphic figures.

These are clearly figurative paintings — depictions derived from real object sources and so is, by definition, representational — an important landmark of cultural evolution. The oldest known figurative art painting is over 40,000 (perhaps as old as 52,000) years old and represents an unknown animal. The dating results were only published one year ago. Meanwhile, the earliest known European figurative cave paintings are those of Chauvet Cave in France. These paintings date to earlier than 30,000 BCE (Upper Paleolithic) according to radiocarbon dating. However, these new findings represent the first such art found in the Balkan area.

“Rock art is key for understanding European Palaeolithic societies. Long thought to have been restricted to South-west Europe, recent discoveries on the Balkan Peninsula have expanded significantly the geographic distribution of Upper Palaeolithic figurative rock art, calling into question the idea of its limited distribution,” researchers write in the study.

Dr. Aitor Ruiz-Redondo, a British Academy-funded Newton International Fellow at the University of Southampton and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bordeaux, further adds that the paintings offers an important clue to understand how different cultures were developed at the same time.

“The importance of this finding is remarkable and sheds a new light on the understanding of Palaeolithic art in the territory of Croatia and the Balkan Peninsula, as well as its relationship with simultaneous phenomena throughout Europe.”

Further research is currently being carried out at the cave.

Journal Reference: Ruiz-Redondo et al. Expanding the horizons of Palaeolithic rock art: the site of Romualdova PećinaAntiquity, 2019; 93 (368): 297 DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2019.36

Wild oats might be the first cereal consumed by humans, as early as the Stone Ages

When asked to imagine a stone-age meal, most of us probably envision a boulder with pieces of charred meat, fruit, nuts and berries, with some mushrooms and some leaves thrown in the mix. Bread, pastry and basically everything that includes cereal couldn’t possibly be baked or cooked by a civilization that considers agriculture far fetched science-fiction.

But that’s not necessarily true. While analysing starch grains on ancient stone grinding tools from southern Italy, Marta Mariotti Lippi at the University of Florence in Italy and her colleagues were able to date the earliest known human consumption of oats as far back as 32,000 years ago – way before farming took root.

Wall paintings in Grotta Paglicci, Italy, where the grindstones were found.
Image via newscientist

Humans from the Paleolithic ground wild oats for flour, which they may have later boiled or baked in a simple flatbread, the team reports. And it wasn’t just a culinary fluke either: our ancestors also seem to have heated the grains before grinding, to dry them out in the colder climate of their time. Lippi also notes that this would have made the grains easier to grind and less likely to spoil, suggesting extensive experience and experimentation with the foodstuff.

The process involved several stages and took a great deal of time, but the advantages outweighed the effort and invested time. The grains are nutritionally valuable, and grinding them into flour made them easier to transport, an important advantage for a nomadic people, she added.

Grinding stone from Grotta Paglicci, Italy
Image credit to Stefano Ricci

It makes sense. For agriculture to appear, humans needed an incentive – recognizing the nutritional value wild grains had for them, having access to large quantities of quality seeds may have determined us to settle down and start growing cereal. When you consider that our civilization’s advance over the last 10,000 years was largely fueled by the grains agriculture produces, the benefits of incorporating them into our diet becomes apparent, says archaeologist Matt Pope of University College London.

“There is a relationship there to be explored between diet, experimentation with processing plant food and cultural sophistication.”

This is another example of the advances made by Europe’s Gravettian culture, which produced technology, artwork and elaborate burial systems during the Upper Palaeolithic era, says Erik Trinkaus at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri.

“These people were described 15 years ago as ‘Hunters of the Golden Age’, and the details of that are still being filled out.”

Mariotti Lippi’s team hopes to continue studying ancient grind-stones to reveal more about the Paleolithic diet. Grinding stones go back a long way, says Trinkaus, and people may well have been pounding and eating various wild grains even earlier than 32,000 years ago.

“We’ve had evidence of the processing of roots and cattails, but here we’ve got a grain, and a grain that we’re very familiar with,” says Pope. “If we were to look more systematically for ground stone technology we would find this is a more widespread phenomenon.”


Amateur archaeologists find 560,000 year old human tooth

A half a million year old human tooth was discovered in France in a place called Tautavel, one of Europe’s most important prehistoric caves. Anthropologists hailed the discovery as an extremely important one, with chief researcher Tony Chevalier calling it a “major discovery”.

Volunteer archaeologists Camille and Valentin pose for the cameras in the Arago cave. Camille, 16, found the adult tooth, which dates back 565,000 years

Volunteer Camille, 16, was working with an archaeology student when they found the tooth. They are among the hundreds of archaeology trainees or volunteers come to dig out the Tautavel cave, searching for evidence of early human inhabitants.

Older human fossils are known in Europe (dating back to 1.2 million years ago), but this one bridges a gap in the fossil evidence in the Lower Paleolithic. Thousands of other finds were made in the same site, including tools and bones from animals, especially horses, reindeers and buffalos.

“We believe these men have lived for a long time in the cave or have regularly come back into it,” Chevalier said. “We also know that the area was quite cold at the time. It was a steppe, with no trees. There had to be some long periods with snow.”

The owner of the tooth – a very worn lower incisor – lived during a much colder climate than today’s; he and his people hunted horses, bisons and reindeer, and used tools. They took cover in caves.

“A large adult tooth – we can’t say if it was from a male or female – was found during excavations of soil we know to be between 550,000 and 580,000 years old, because we used different dating methods,” paleoanthropologist Amelie Viallet told the AFP news agency. “This is a major discovery because we have very few human fossils from this period in Europe,” she said.

Cavemen had much stronger leg bones than our settled ancestor who first experimented with agriculture some 10,000 years ago. However, early farmer bones differ little from modern day humans - the epitome of sedentarism. Image: Bret Contreras

Humans bones became lighter and frailer once farming became widespread

Our bones are much lighter and weaker than those of our Paleolithic ancestors (11,000 to 33,000 years ago), but it’s not our spoiled modern day lifestyle that’s to blame. Instead, a new study which closely compared homo sapiens bones, both ancient and modern, found that the most significant changes occurred once the paradigm shift from hunter-gatherer to agriculture took place, some 10,000 years ago. Humans started forming permanent settlements, worked the land and tended to flocks. Consequently, the lifestyle became more sedentary.

Cavemen had much stronger leg bones than our settled ancestor who first experimented with agriculture some 10,000 years ago. However, early farmer bones differ little from modern day humans - the epitome of sedentarism.  Image: Bret Contreras

Cavemen had much stronger leg bones than our settled ancestor who first experimented with agriculture some 10,000 years ago. However, early farmer bones differ little from modern day humans – the epitome of sedentarism. Image: Bret Contreras

One might argue that’s nothing compared to  we’re seeing in modern society. Today, one third of the population is obese, so it would seem reasonable to believe that our bones should have became even frailer in the meantime. However, according to lead researcher Christopher Ruff, professor in the center for functional anatomy and evolution at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the differences in bone strength between Mesopotamian farmers and 20th century humans are minimal to negligible. To gives to show just how strong our hunter-gatherer ancestors were, especially in the lower limbs.

Ruff and colleagues analyzed bones from 1,842 people collected from all over Europe from the Paleolithic period  to the 20th century. The focus was on the long bones in the arms and legs, while arm strength was gauged for control. The differences in arm bones between hunter-gatherers and Mesopotamians weren’t at all noticeable. However, when it came to lower limb bone strength that was another story. The front-to-back bending strength of the leg bones was considerably greater during the Paleolithic,  while side-to-side strength changed very little. Since the front-to-back bending strength is a prime indicator of mobility, and considering arm bone strength stayed more or less constant across the ages, the researchers reason that any loss of bone strength resulted from foregoing a migrating lifestyle. If a change in diet caused a change in bone structure or strength, we should had seen this across all bones – both arm and leg bones. This drop in  bone strength in the lower limbs remained constant throughout the Iron Age and the Roman era, as well as in the 20th century.

“By the medieval period, bones were about the same strength that they are today,” the researchers note in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


This suggests that cars, airplanes and even TV dinner had minimal effects on changing leg bone density. Of course… maybe it’s still too early to see the differences.

The research is important for its medical insights. For instance, bones became increasingly thinner and prone to fractures and osteoporosis almost 7,000 years ago during the last part of the Stone Age. It would have been interesting if the researchers also looked at contemporary leg bones coming from modern day hunter-gatherer people, like those still living as they have for thousands of years in Congo or the Australian outback. Maybe in the next installment.

In any event, the researchers note that these changes aren’t genetic. In other words, you too could have leg bones as strong as  Paleolithic hunter-gatherer, if you exposed yourself to the same stresses and lifestyle. True enough, it’s enough to look at athletes today to see this happening.


A cave painting in Jebel Acacus, modern day Lybia. Along with many other, this painting is 12 000 years and is among some of the best works found anywhere else in the world. source

The Nature of War – We Are Not Programmed to Violence

Controversy surrounds biologist E.O. Wilson’s latest publication ‘The Social Conquest of Earth’. Most of it centres on his repudiation of kin selection and the question of whether or not its replacement, group selection, actually works. What most of the debate overlooks is Wilson’s contention that humans have evolved violent instincts from a past of warfare that he describes as “universal and eternal”.

This assumption that our evolutionary history is warlike is not unique to Wilson – it is implicit in most evolutionary pyschology. In turn these theories rely upon primatology and anthropology to connect supposed current instincts with those of ‘violent’ ape ancestors. Raymond Dart was the first to put forward such a link, when in the 1950s he put forward his killer ape theory that argued for the “predatory transition from ape to man”. Later Robert Ardrey wrote that “man has emerged from the anthropoid background for one reason only: because he was a killer.”

Recently, the anthropologist and primatologist Richard W. Wrangham has sought to provide a more sophisticated mechanism that connects human behaviour with that of our primate ancestors. In his paper ‘Evolution of Coalitionary Killing’ Wrangham puts forward the chimpanzee violence hypothesis, which says that “selection has favoured a tendency among adult males to assess the costs and benefits of violence, and to attack rivals when the probable net benefits are sufficiently high.” This instinct he says, is behind much of our current warfare.

Countering theories, such as Jeremy Griffith’s theory of the human condition, which holds that humans evolved genuinely cooperative instincts, and that our current violent state has a psychological basis, are extremely rare.

What then is the evidence?

We know through archeological discoveries, as well as pictorial records, that the Holocene Epoch (from the present to approximately 12,000 years ago) was characterised by warfare; however similar finds from the Paleolithic are almost non-existent.

A cave painting in Jebel Acacus, modern day Lybia. Along with many other, this painting is 12 000 years and is among some of the best works found anywhere else in the world. source

A cave painting in Jebel Acacus, modern day Lybia. Along with many other, this painting is 12 000 years-old and is among some of the best works found anywhere else in the world.  Source

The Paleolithic (covering a lot of what is colloquially known as the stone age) is that period of time that stretches back from the start of the Holocene to some 2.5 million years ago. If violence and the propensity to war are instincts inherited from our ape ancestors, we would expect to find a continuation of evidence leading all the way back to those ancestors. Indeed, if our instincts were formed by “universal and eternal” warfare as Wilson claims, then the Palaeolithic should abound with evidence of interpersonal violence, just as the Holocene does.

In looking for evidence of violence, there are three main sources that scientists rely upon. I. J. N. Thorpe describes them as: “the existence of weapons, depictions of warfare, and skeletal remains demonstrating conflict”.

Of these, the most incontrovertible are skeletal remains demonstrating conflict  because they have weapons or artefacts lodged in them, or injuries that could only have been incurred from early human weapons–this is gold standard evidence if you like.

While it is not exhaustive, nor entirely ‘gold standard’, the following lists most of the accepted archaeological finds from Palaeolithic times that might indicate interpersonal violence:

250 k.a. BP. Sima de los Huesos, Spain. At least 32 skeletons. Several skulls have healed impact fractures. It remains unclear whether this find is evidence of warfare.

90 k.a. BP. Kasies River, South Africa. A healed skull fracture is argued to be from an attack.

50 k.a. – 12 k.a. BP. There are a number of multiple burial sites e.g. at Predmosti in Moravia where 20 individuals were buried. There is argument whether this was due to lethal conflict or disease or starvation.

13 k.a. BP. San Teodoro cave in Sicily. Woman with a flint point in her iliac crest.

13 k.a. BP. Grotta de Canciulli France. Child with a flint in its Thoracic vertebra.

12 k.a. BP Jebel Sahaba Nile where. 59 burials or which 24 skeletons had flint points embedded in the bones or found within the grave fill. The excavator of the site suggests that environmental pressure and vanishing resources were the cause of the violence.

I.J.N. Thorpe argues that if a bioligical theory of violence such as Wrangham’s chimpanzee violence hypothesis did hold, then even taking into account the vagauries of archeological research, there should be common and uniform evidence of violence across cultures and time. Thorpe says: “The biological theories imply a constant level of violence, not supported by the archeological evidence, which demonstrates significant variations in evidence for conflict from virtually none to apparent massacres.

However beyond the skeletal evidence, the artistic evidence (or lack thereof) is perhaps even more compelling. During the Holocene, war dominated all artistic records, both pictorial and mythic. This domination makes the lack of any such pictorial record during the Paleolithic even more notable. This is an extraordinary distinction. The palaeobiologist R. Dale Guthrie, arguably the world’s leading authority of Palaeolithic art, comes to this conclusion: “This shortcut to stored bounty by raiding the wealth of others became a universal tribal phenomenon: warring conflicts constitute most of recorded and mythic Holocene history. But Palaeolithic art shows no drawing of group conflict, and there is virtually no indication from late Palaeolithic skeletons of murderous violence.” (underlining mine)

In summary, biological theories of violence and aggression, such as that put forward by E.O. Wilson in support of group selection, presuppose uniform and consistent levels of violence; however the evidence does not support this. On the contrary, the evidence is that while some violence exists in extant chimpanzees, the behavioural history of hominins was almost entirely violent-free before 12,000 years ago. The conclusion that is hard to escape is that our propensity for violence is not instinctive, and that we need to look elsewhere for its cause.