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Foul Play Suspected in Neanderthal Case

24 April 2002 (All day)
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Clobbered caveman. Reconstruction of a Neanderthal skull reveals a nasty blow.

A dent in a 36,000-year-old skull resulted from a vicious attack by a Neanderthal family member, according to a new study. This conclusion, published in the 30 April issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is drawn from a 3D computer reconstruction of the St. Césaire skull found in France in 1979. The authors say their findings have important implications for understanding the social lives of Neanderthals. But critics say a simple accident could just as well explain the bump on the hominid's head.

Anthropologist Christoph Zollikofer and colleagues from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, created the virtual reconstruction from x-ray images of the fragmented skull, which likely belonged to a young Neanderthal man. The researchers identified a bony scar close to the midline of the head that they say resembles damage caused by a sharp object. The straight edge and orientation of the scar indicates to Zollikofer that the man was attacked with a tool or weapon with a handle--such as a stone axe. Zollikofer says the scar's location, on the crown of the head, suggests that other possible causes--falling on a sharp edge, a hunting accident, or a piece of rock falling on the man's head--are less likely. Because Neanderthals gathered in family groups and had sparse contact with other humans, a violent act within the family is the most likely explanation, Zollikofer concludes.

But his analysis also suggests the man probably survived the incident. The bone structure of the skull indicates the scar had time to heal--at least a couple months. Zollikofer speculates that the man was saved by the care of his relatives. If correct, this interpretation supports the view of some anthropologists that the social intelligence of Neanderthals, who disappeared about 30,000 years ago, rivaled that of Cro-Magnons--early modern humans.

Richard Klein, an anthropologist at Stanford University, says the evidence for the head wound is "interesting," but he adds that "it's possible to imagine that it reflects an accident rather than interpersonal violence." Tim White, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, agrees that the case for interpersonal violence is weak. He proposes an alternative scenario: "A spark flew out of the fire into the Neanderthal's crotch and he stood up quickly, screaming. But he forgot the low irregular ceiling. He received a bump on the head. Violent? I'll say! But not interpersonal violence."

Related sites
Zollikofer's lab page
Zollikofer's page on computer-assisted paleoanthropology Neanderthals: A Cyber Perspective
Virtual Library by the Archaeological Research Institute

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