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36,000 years ago, two Neanderthals entered a Belgian cave and never came out. At least, not until archaeologists dug them up. Since then, scientists have been trying to figure out what happened to them; prompting researchers Fernández-Jalvo and Andrews carrying out a bit of CSI stone age. Using forensic methods, they found these Neanderthals were (likely) murdered 1.

A crime that is definitely not humerus

Therapist: “You can’t hear images”.

The scene of the crime

As with any crime scene investigation, the place to start is at the scene of the crime.

Now, these two Neanderthals were found in Spy Cave, Belgium in the 1860s. This earnt them the creative names of “Spy 1” and “Spy 2”, which is doubly confusing as Spy 2 was the first found, and Spy 1 discovered later. It seems early archaeologists were just bad at naming stuff1.

Also bad at digging stuff up. This picture shows a part of the cave that is now missing, likely because excavators tried to blast their way into the cave1.

Spy 1 & 2 are kind of a big deal. Being an early discovery, they formed the foundation of a whole lot of research into Neanderthals1. More recently, fossils from Spy have yielded ancient DNA, helping later scientists build a picture of European Neanderthal populations2.

However, just because these fossils are called “Spy” and were found in Spy cave doesn’t mean they actually died there. This could just where they were laid to rest, given Neanderthals are known to have buried their dead.

Typically, we don’t assume everyone found at a graveyard died there.

So, Fernández-Jalvo and Andrews re-examined Spy 1 and 2. This revealed their bones had cracks caused by fluctuations in humidity, yet no direct weather damage; suggesting suggests that they were exposed to the open air but still protected from the elements1.

These features, combined with the fact they appear to have been undisturbed, indicates they were just left on the cave floor; perhaps under a shallow coating of dirt or rocks, providing protection from animals and elements. The fact there wasn’t a formal burial could mean the bodies were never discovered by other Neanderthals. Was this the perfect crime?

How did they die?

Of course, it being a perfect crime requires there to have been an actual crime committed. So, now we know that Spy 1 & 2 actually died in the cave, the question becomes “how did they die”? To figure this out, let’s join Fernández-Jalvo and Andrews in taking a deeper look at the fossils themselves.

Spy 1 may have been a female, given it’s the more gracile of the two skulls. We can’t be sure of this, given most of the skeleton is missing. However, one thing we can be certain of is that the skull has undergone some major trauma. They were hit on the left of the head, which drove the right of their skull into the ground; creating telltale deformations to the right-hand side of it. A big blow to the back of the head also caused major damage1.

Spy 1, with the impact on one side of the skull causing deformations on the opposite part1.

Spy II is more robust and so commonly viewed as male, although again the lack of skeleton makes this hard to confirm. They suffered a powerful blow to the face that damaged the sutures which join the skull bones together; effectively breaking the skull along its seams. Such a massive hit would likely have killed them1.

Spy II, with damaged sutures caused by a big blow to the face. This is more pronounced on their left, due to the angle of the blow1.

Given these injuries, people have been claiming these Neanderthals were murdered since their discovery. However, not everyone was convinced. Whilst we know these injuries happened around the time of death, it’s uncertain if they were before or after death. Plus even they were the cause of death it doesn’t mean they were murdered1.

Proving they were murdered

After all, “Neanderthal murder” may grab all the headlines. However, the fact remains there are many alternative explanations for how these fossils were injured. Could the damage be from an accident, animal, or a later cave-in crushing the fossils?

To figure this out Fernández-Jalvo and Andrews turned to another source of data: the >1,000 animal bones recovered from the cave. They hoped that these fossils could shed light on the cave’s history; particularly the natural forces at work within it. For instance, if the Neanderthal fossils were crushed by a cave-in then it stands to reason other bones from the cave might also be damaged1.

Suspiciously, the Neanderthals appeared to have suffered a unique “damage fingerprint”, unlike other fossils from the cave. Whatever happened to them, it wasn’t the result of natural processes in the cave1.

Neanderthal (left) versus animal (right) damage patterns at Spy Cave1.

Additional evidence that these Neanderthals were murdered comes from the location of their injuries. They’re located fairly high on the head, whilst falling down tends to cause fractures lower on the skull. Further, the injuries are also mostly on their left side, which is where a right-handed attacker would strike them (accidents are a bit more randomly distributed)1.

A review of how to spot between violence and accidents identified these criteria as key signs the victim was murdered 1,3.

Who murdered them?

Whilst alternative explanations can’t be ruled out, particularly given the lack of remains, the fact remains that these fossils fit the pattern you’d expect to see in a modern murder. Repeated blows, high on the head, as though being attacked by a right-handed individual (which most Neanderthals were).

So who did the (maybe) murdering?

Spy 1 had damage from their skull being driven into the ground by a blow to their left. This could mean they were lying on their right-hand side when attacked; suggesting they were taken unaware. Perhaps they were ambushed by another tribe whilst they slept.

However, Fernández-Jalvo and Andrews raise another possibility. Given that the bones appear to have been abandoned in the cave it may be that the killers died in the struggle. There are no signs of burial by comrades or butchery by a victor. In other words, it might be the case that Spy 1 and 2 killed each other!

References

  1. Fernández-Jalvo, Y. and Andrews, P., 2019. Spy cave (Belgium) Neanderthals (36,000 y BP). Taphonomy and peri-mortem traumas of Spy I and Spy II: Murder or accident. Quaternary Science Reviews.
  2. Hajdinjak, M., Fu, Q., Hübner, A., Petr, M., Mafessoni, F., Grote, S., Skoglund, P., Narasimham, V., Rougier, H., Crevecoeur, I. and Semal, P., 2018. Reconstructing the genetic history of late Neanderthals. Nature555(7698), p.652.
  3. Kremer, C., Racette, S., Dionne, C.A. and Sauvageau, A., 2008. Discrimination of falls and blows in blunt head trauma: systematic study of the hat brim line rule in relation to skull fractures. Journal of forensic sciences53(3), pp.716-719.

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