In 1941, phosphate miners in the region of Transylvania unearthed the fossilized skull of an adult Paleolithic man, who lived around 33,000 years ago. The fossil represents one of few well-preserved specimens from Europe’s earliest humans—but it isn’t intact. A large fracture blights the right side of the cranium, and experts have spent decades speculating about the cause of the trauma. Was the skull damaged in the moments before the man’s death, or in the centuries after his demise? Did the victim fall from a perilous height? Or was there, perhaps, something more nefarious at play?
Now, scientists think they have unravelled the mystery of this very cold case. Writing in the journal PLOS One, an international team of experts say that the fractures in the “Cioclovina calvaria” fossil—calvaria is the upper portion of the cranium, and the fossil was found in the Pestera Cioclovina cave—were likely inflicted by a foe wielding a bat-like object. The violent attack was so forceful that it likely caused severe brain injuries, quickly ushering the victim to his death.
To piece together the puzzle of this prehistoric assault, the researchers relied on visual analyses, Computed Tomography (CT) scans and an experiment that involved them commit various acts of violence against artificial skulls. Upon close examination of the injury, the team realized that there were actually two fractures: a linear fracture at the base of the skull, and what is known as a “depressed fracture” on the right parietal bone.
Neither fracture showed any signs of healing, ruling out the possibility that the Cioclovina man had been injured some time before he died. The researchers also concluded that the trauma to the skull was not caused by post-mortem factors, like scavenging or soil pressure. Bones become dry after a person dies, and post-mortem fractures of the skull tend to be squared, sharp and irregular in pattern. “Fresh” bones, by contrast, still preserve their elastic properties; when they break, they tend to “migrate towards structurally weaker areas of the skull, such as those where multiple blood vessels merge,” the study authors explain. Injuries inflicted at the time of death can also cause “bone flakes,” or small fragments still attached to the skull.
The Cioclovina fossil had bone flakes at the impact site, and its depressed fracture actually consisted of six fractures that radiated to other parts of the skull—both signs that these injuries had happened just before death. The semi-circular shape of the fracture offered another telling indicator. “The distinctive [circular] depressed fracture found on the right side of the skull is unquestionably evidence that the person was struck with a blunt object, which directly implies a human agent,” Elena Kranioti, a forensic scientist at the University of Crete and first author of the study, tells Ruby Prosser Scully of New Scientist.
To confirm their theory, the researchers set about attacking artificial bone spheres, filled with ballistic gelatin to mimic the human head. They dropped the spheres from a height of more than 30 feet (and looked at data from previous simulations that had focused on falls from lower heights), hit them with rocks and whacked them with a baseball bat, according to Laura Geggel of Live Science. Only the bat strikes produced injuries like the depressed fracture seen in Cioclovina man. In fact, the researchers write, the fracture follows a “textbook pattern of an injury induced by a blow with a round, bat-like object.”
The linear fracture is a bit more difficult to parse. Accidents can produce injuries like this, but so do intentional blows; in fact, historical victims executed by strikes to the back of the head show similar breakage patterns. The study authors note that when they hit artificial skulls that had been secured to a solid surface, simulating a victim with his head on the ground or against a wall, the attack resulted in both linear and depressed fractures.
It is possible that the Cioclovina man was struck while he was in a kneeling position, but the researchers think it is more likely that he was face-to-face with his killer; the fractures appear laterally, rather than at the top of the head, as one might expect if a victim was lower to the ground. Because the injuries are on the right side of the cranium, the researchers think the perpetrator was left-handed, though they note that “the possibility of holding the object with both hands cannot be dismissed.”
In the absence of written documents, experts rely on human remains to uncover the lives of our prehistoric ancestors. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that these human relatives were far more sophisticated than once thought. But as the new study shows, brutal, intentional violence was also very much a reality for Europe’s early inhabitants.