A Case of Antique Murder

A Case of Antique Murder

No matter how primitive the human species may have been two million years ago, it was already showing traits consistent with modern civilized lifestyles. Murder and warfare appear to have been among them.

Quite recently the fossil jawbone of a twelve—year—old australopithecine male was unearthed near Makapan, South Africa. An examination of the jawbone yielded indisputable evidence that he had died a violent death. His jaw was broken on both sides, and the front teeth were missing. There was a dark, smooth dent on his chin from a violent blow. A clublike weapon, probably the limb bone of a deer or an antelope, had been used. Since there was no sign that the bone had healed, the boy must have died from the blow.

It seems unlikely that an immature boy would have been engaged in actual warfare. More probably he had either snatched a morsel of food from an adult or wandered into another group of Paleolithic men. Whatever may have provoked the violence, the boy was killed as a result of it. Since this happened nearly two million years ago, some scientists refer to the incident as a case of antique murder.

Recent studies of Australopithecus skulls clearly indicate that the humans of millions of years ago engaged in open combat against their fellows. A number of skulls examined from several sites in South Africa show that death resulted from skull fractures caused by heavy blows from clubs often fashioned from animal limb bones or, in some cases, from rocks. In one instance a rock two inches in diameter was found inside the skull. Evidence that the man had been killed by this rock is clear—cut. It must have been hurled quite skillfully by a powerful hand.

Such clashes between bands of people were probably not uncommon, since ancient man appears to have been quite family—clan oriented. Nuclear family distinctions within the clan were doubtless rather vague, for all too often dependent children whose parents had died — the life span being less than twenty years — would be the responsibility of others in the group. The number of australopithecines in a band has been estimated to range from a dozen to fifty individuals. The group would necessarily be large enough to provide protection and small enough that procuring food and water for all members would be feasible. Clans made up of close family members would lead to territorial hunting and water claims, and instant war was almost inevitable when one group moved into another's territory.

Doubtless Australopithecus was omnivorous, and hunting was an essential part of his lifestyle. In South Africa two million years ago his favorite prey appears to have been baboons. Scientists have recovered fifty—eight baboon skulls from a cave in South Africa. All the baboons had been clubbed to death.

Of the fifty—eight skulls only eight were hit from behind. This must have occurred as they turned to flee from the savage apeman wielding a club, a weapon that had once been a limb bone of an antelope. The fifty others did not die so easily; all the club marks are frontal. Although they probably died at different hunts, all turned and faced their enemy. What a scene of savage fury this must have been! Quite probably not all of the human creatures involved in the confrontation lived to walk away from the carnage.

Because these early humans were small in stature, less than five feet tall, and their average weight was about ninety pounds, one would tend to consider them delicate. On the contrary, they possessed enormous strength, as one hyena discovered about two million years ago. On that occasion a man responded to the sudden hyena attack by thrusting an antelope leg bone into its open mouth. Such tremendous force was exerted that the skull at the back of the throat was broken, instantly killing the beast. The hyena's skull is now exhibited in a South African museum, with the leg bone still protruding from its mouth.

Research on the skeletal remains of a number of australopithecine people has shown that, in addition to possessing enormous strength, they were extremely fleet of foot, probably far more so than today's Olympic runners. An analysis of australopithecine bones indicates that most likely the hominid was able to outrun many of his four—footed contemporaries. He may even have actually run his prey down just as the cheetah does today.

Opinions vary as to why humans have changed so significantly in physical potential. Many scientists believe that it is time rather than mere genetics that has slowed and weakened modern man. The limited physical demands made on humans have reduced the need for such great strength and speed. All agree, however, that an ever—enlarging brain has kept man equal to the task of manipulating, controlling, and expanding his environment.


From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth