Murder is an unfortunate crime that we seeÂ daily on the nightly news, and people have been committing this act for centuries. However, new evidence shows that we might have been killing others as far back as 430,000 years ago.
A fossilized skull discovered within a Spanish cave has scientists believing that homicide was a real threat to humans, even thousands of years ago. The skull, which comes from theÂ Neanderthal period, has two fractures. Both wounds appear to have been inflicted by the same weapon. Researchers stumbled upon the skull in the Sima de los Huesos (Spanish for “Pit of Bones”) in the Atapuerca mountains.
Experts find the skull particularly interesting because it shows that our species, theÂ homo sapien,Â is not unique to murder. Other lineagesÂ of humans were committing the actÂ before we had evolved into who we are today. Researchers have concluded that this unfortunate individual was likely killed with a wooden spear, stone spear or stone hand-axe.
The skull was located at the bottom of a shaft in the cave. However, it wasn’t the only one discovered — there were about 30 people found at the base of the 43-foot shaft.
Murder and the Brain
Most of us couldn’t even imagine taking the life of another person. However, murderÂ doesÂ happen, and scientists have been trying to unlock the reasons behind killers’ motives for decades.
A study conducted by Psychologist Pascal Molenberghs examined 48 individuals to determine how the brain may play a role in a murderer’s emotional state. In the study, participants had their brains scanned while they watched three different video loops. The first showed a soldier killing an enemy, while the second showed a soldier killing a civilian. The final showed a soldier shooting, but failing to hit another human. At the end of each video, the people were asked, “Who did you shoot?” Then, the participants were asked to rate how guilty they felt in each scenario on a scale of 1 to 7.
There was consistently greater activity in the lateral portion of the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) of the brain when the civilian video was shown. Both the OFC and the temporoparietal junction (TPJ) were active when participants were asked to rank guilt, meaning they not only felt guilty, but knew that they should feel guilty.
However, the lingual gyrus was particularly active during the video that featured the soldier shooting an enemy. This region is responsible for spatial reasoning. In short,Â the brain (and conscience) may let you go a bit further if you feel that your killing would be justified.
Of course, there’sÂ muchÂ more science that goes into understanding theÂ brain, emotional reactions and murder. However, the bottom line is that if something seems a littleÂ offÂ about the person responsible for that homicide you saw on the news, science may be able to explain your hunch.
Kluger, Jeffrey. “Here’s What Happens in the Brain When People Kill.” Time. April 10, 2015.
“Fossil skull my belong to the world’s earliest known murder victim.” Thomson Reuters. May 28, 2015.