Forensic Method solves Stone Age murder mystery after 33,000 years

Paleolithic Skull
(Image: © Kranioti, EF. et al. PLOS ONE. 2019.)

The Cioclovina skull has two large fractures on it, likely from interpersonal violence during the Upper Paleolithic.

Researchers have used forensic science to crack one of the oldest cold cases in history – the murder of an early modern human who lived in Europe more than 30,000 years ago.

The skull of Cioclovina man has been very mysterious. It was discovered during the second world war, in 1941, by miners searching for phosphate in a cave in Transylvania, Romania. Dated at 33,0000 years old, Cioclovina is one of the oldest, relatively complete skulls so far found of an early modern human living in Europe in the Upper Palaeolithic period.

The scientists who first studied this skull made no mention of two extensive fractures on its right side. After that discovery Researchers have debated about the cause of the fractures:

✅ Were they from the any type of explosions?

✅ Were they caused because of mishandling the specimen?

✅ Did the cave collapse on Cioclovina man and kill him? 

✅ Was he murdered?

Forensic scientist Elena Kranioti at the University of Crete and her colleagues decided to apply modern forensic techniques to Solve this puzzle.

➖ Use of CT Scan

Using CT scans, they discovered that there were no signs of healing around the fractures, ruling out the possibility that Cioclovina man had been injured and then recovered.

➖ When the fracture have been occurred?

The second step was to looked for signs of when the bones were broken. Kranioti knew that if the skull was damaged long after Cioclovina man had died, the fractures would be in random patterns and be square-shaped with sharp edges, because old and dry bone breaks differently from ‘living’ bone.

Finally they found that the damage happened around the time of death.

➖ Final Deduction

They deducted that the fracture lines migrated towards the structurally weaker areas of the skull, and bone flakes flecked inward – indicating the injury occurred while there was still soft brain tissue in the skull.

➖ How the skull have been fractured?

Then, after determine the time of fracture, their next step was to determine whether Cioclovina man’s fractures were caused by a fall, being hit on the head with a rock, or perhaps something else.

➖ Study of Pattern of Fracture

The pattern of the fractures gave Kranioti and her team some clues. One fairly straight fracture stretched across the skull, while the other more circular fracture pushed fragments inward into the brain. Today, these circular, depressed fractures are typical of attacks with baseball bats, says Kranioti.

While the fractures from the circular blow radiated outwards, they stopped when they met the straight line, meaning the straight-line fracture came first.

“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,” says Kranioti.

➖ Face-to-face

Fragments of bone flecked backwards into the skull, indicating Cioclovina man was facing his attacker head-on. This is further evidence against the theory that he was killed from falling cave roof debris, the authors say.

➖ Scene Reconstruction

The team then experimentally recreated the blow using artificial skulls filled with ballistic gelatin. They tested several scenarios, including falls, blows with a rock, and blows with a baseball bat to different locations. The fracture patterns found on Cioclovina man’s skull strongly resembled what happened when the artificial skulls were hit twice with a round, club-like object while against the ground.

“The linear fracture happened first and could have been either a result of a person falling from their own height – while running from someone, for example – or a result of a strike while kneeling or being on the ground,” says Kranioti.

The second fracture is clearly a result of violence, she says.

“Which means that, in modern terms, if I had to define the cause and matter of death as a forensic pathologist I would say that the person died of craniocerebral injuries (as the brain would also have been damaged from the blows) and that it was homicide.”

➖ Fatal Wounds

Kranioti says that without the rest of the body there is no way to know if the victim had already received fatal wounds elsewhere before this attack.

But the extent and location of the cranial fractures suggest that the person died shortly after he received the head injuries, she says.

Stanley Serafin at the University of New South Wales, Australia, says the authors present a “thoroughly convincing case”.

“This is solid evidence of interpersonal violence and violent death over 30,000 years ago among the earliest modern humans in Europe,” he says.

Who murdered him?

“Who is the murderer”, is still a question. Given the timing, it raises questions about whether this violence was committed by someone of the same species, or whether it was perhaps caused by these modern humans migrating into areas where Neanderthals may have still lived, says Serafin.