There is a cave system in the Atapuerca Mountains of Spain that contains a bit known as Sima de los Huesos — “Pit of the Bones.” I’m sure it looks as wonderful as it sounds. Researchers and paleontologists have been combing through the pit, doing what researchers and paleontologists do. So far, they’ve discovered twenty-eight sets of remains dating back nearly half a million years. One particular set of remains stands out: the skull of a young adult, found in fifty-two pieces. Scientists pieced the skull back together and discovered something unexpected—two cracks, just above the left eye. The evidence was plain enough and old enough to define the skull as “the earliest case of deliberate, lethal interpersonal aggression in the hominin fossil record.”
In other words, scientists have dug up the oldest murder victim in history.
The person’s injuries (the researchers were unable to determine if the skull belonged to a male or female) seem the result of two brutal blows, each from a slightly different angle but each more than capable of puncturing the brain, the murder weapon most likely being a spear or an axe. We’ll never know which; the skull—or what is left of it—has been at the bottom of a forty-foot shaft for 4,300 centuries. Dropped there by either family or the murderer(s), creating at once both the earliest known funeral and the earliest known crime scene.
Think about that for a minute. Being murdered like that and then dumped in a hole, forgotten for hundreds of thousands of years. No name, no story, at least none we can know. And lest you fool yourself into thinking this sort of thing really doesn’t matter at all, I’ll remind you this person had a father, a mother, likely siblings. He or she may have been in love, may have been married, may have even had children of his or her own. The brain encased in this broken skull was just like ours, capable of higher thought and language. It could ponder and wonder. It knew love and fear.
I bet he had dreams that weren’t so different from our own, a nice place to live, some sort of comfort, peace. I’d wager she had thoughts of growing old, plans for the future. Unfortunately, that wasn’t meant to be. Somehow, someway, whether his fault or hers or whether another’s, death came with horrific violence.
Sad, if you ask me. No matter who it is or how long it’s been.
But here’s the thing that stuck most with me: we’ve been doing this sort of thing to each other for a very long while. We’ve been bashing skulls and chopping off limbs and taking lives since the beginning. We like to think of ourselves as evolved, sophisticated, mature. We’re not, at least not deep down. Deep down we’re still savages, savages whose better natures are constantly pushed aside for what we want, when we want, and exactly how we want it. If we could somehow interview the person responsible for the two holes in this skull, my guess is he or she would sound very much like anyone on the news: “It’s not my fault.” “They deserved it.” “I couldn’t help myself.”
We’ve come a long way in the last 430,000 years. Made great strides, done amazing things. In that time we’ve mastered wind and fire and water, but not ourselves. We’ve plumbed ocean depths and the tallest mountains, but we have yet to discover just how low or high we can all reach. Sometimes, I wonder if we ever will.