1,300-year-old Murder Mystery Offers Glimpse at History – and Prehistory – of Homicide

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Cain and Abel by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione
Cain and Abel by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione. Arguably the first murder.Credit: Sergio Anelli / Electa / Mondado
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Murder is generally frowned upon, as its definition implies: causing death unlawfully. Causing death in war is not generally frowned upon, as that is considered lawful as long as one adheres to the rules of war. But when a person causes death in any nonmilitary circumstance, the suspicion of murder will arise. Even if the killer acted in self-defense or for some other reason the court might condone, one might decide not to trust in the system but hide the body.

Now, when one dies in battle, one usually has plenty of company and the archaeological assumptions are in keeping with the finds. In the case of a solo burial, war is not the parsimonious assumption.

Thus, archaeologists concluded that the body of a young man who died about 1,300 years ago in Ningxia, north-central China, and was stuffed into a 2,000-year-old tomb had been murdered. 

Their paper on this 1,300-year-old postulated homicide was published last month in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

Hiding bodies in tombs or cemeteries is akin to “hiding a leaf in the forest” and has been practiced since antiquity, the writers Zining Zou, Xiaoyang Wang and colleagues evocatively write.

"This millennium-old case enriches the long history of homicide behaviors, such as the returning of senses to the perpetrator/s after violent actions to hide evidence and avoid punishment,” they add.

Less poetically, they suspect the young man was stabbed to death and thrown into a shaft dug down from the surface by grave robbers seeking treasures in a tomb already centuries old, the authors say. The body was found slumped, not laid out.

Moreover, the homicidal grave robbers seem to have dishonorably scattered the three bodies originally interred in the 2,000-year-old tomb: a man 35 to 40 years old, a woman about 30 years old and a child about 7 to 8 years old, the authors write. The man’s skull evinced one big lesion of disease, possibly osteoblastoma (a condition in which the original bone disintegrates and is essentially replaced by abnormal, rather fragile bone), though other posthumous diagnoses are possible.

The authors also report on the discovery of a bent, ancient sword in proximity of the homicide victim.

So who was he? Some 1,300 years later, there’s no telling: A falling out among thieves? A guard protecting the cemetery from grave robbers? An unlucky mourner or passerby? Was he hidden by the guilty in the grave by craft, or coincidence because he was helping to rob it at the time? The archaeologists do not speculate on the myriad possibilities or whether he died by that sword, which was found at a higher level than the body.

But he died “young and healthy,” lead author Qian Wang told The Art Newspaper – until he was killed, that is. The team reveals that the deceased’s bones were riddled with marks typical of stab wounds, notably to his head, and he appears to have died in a defensive position, trying to defend said head with his arm. It did not work.

First village, first murders

Even leaving aside any ancient propensity to sensibly hide homicide in a graveyard, which the authors says is still being done, clear cases of murder – as opposed to, say, human sacrifice – are rare in archaeology, though crime apparently goes back to the first definition of any deed as such, and murder has been frowned on since the dim reaches of civilization.

In fact, it seems murder predates our species entirely, judging by the case reported in 2015 of a hominin bashed on the brow ridge and thrown down a shaft 430,000 years ago, which is before the earliest Homo sapiens arose. In this case, the victim was a pre-Neanderthal and the location was a Middle Paleolithic archaeological site in Spain. The perp remains unknown, but it seems to have delivered not one but two death blows to the victim’s head above the left eye. “The type of injuries, their location, the strong similarity of the fractures in shape and size, and the different orientations and implied trajectories of the two fractures, suggest they were produced with the same object in face-to-face interpersonal conflict,” that team wrote.

Skeletons discovered from the ancient Turkish city of Çatalhöyük.Credit: Steve Estvanik / Shutterstock

Moving onto our species, among other rare, extremely cold cases that may be considered prehistoric murder rather than human sacrifice or battle is a site in Turkana, Kenya, dating to about 10,000 years ago, where 10 people – including six children and one pregnant woman – were killed with extreme violence and, it seems, at least two had their hands bound

“Evidence for inter-group violence among prehistoric hunter-gatherers is extremely rare,” the team wrote at the time, but there it was. However, the presence of arrowheads in some of the remains could categorize this as part of a small war, like the remains from a battle dating to 13,000 years ago in Sudan, which is classified as a small war.

The dawn of civilization and settlement is heralded as a great advance, an opportunity for human nature to flower – including in the form of doing to death annoying neighbors. Archaeologists in the 9,000-year-old village of Çatalhöyük, Turkey, were bemused to discover very crowded conditions and indications that the people were beginning to grow grain, husband animals, and murder.

Out of 93 skulls from Çatalhöyük that were studied, over 25 percent had healed broken bones; in 12 cases, the person had been beaten as many as five times, and not with mere fists. Skulls were found with marks from hard round objects and, lo, hard round objects were found right there too. How the villagers felt about each other is pretty clear; how they felt about the killers, we do not know.

From the prehistoric massacre site in CroatiaCredit: Mario Novak, Iigo Olalde, Hara

Indeed, ancient cases abound. Another notable one is the mass murder detected in what is today Croatia 6,200 years ago, and again a seemingly indiscriminate slaughter of men, women and children.  Broken heads suggests that’s how they died, and not in battle; the motive could not be deduced, the baffled archaeologists said. They seem to have been locals. Half the victims were minors. There are more examples, but this will suffice for now.

Murderous in Mesopotamia

The Croatian example and Çatalhöyük – which apparently had as many as 8,500 feuding residents at its peak – goes back so far, it makes the legend of Cain the farmer who viciously murdered his little brother Abel the shepherd look almost modern.

The origins of that Genesis story likely lie in long-forgotten Near Eastern lore, which in turn may be based on a perennial struggle between nomads and early villagers, and/or between farmers and shepherds over water, at least since the Bronze Age.

Of course, the usual narrative is that the nasty nomads would attack the pastoral village folk, but in this case Abel would have been the nomad. “Ancient Near Eastern myths were often coopted by the writers of the Hebrew Bible,” points out Bible affairs expert Elon Gilad.

However, according to the Bible, Cain was not sentenced to death but to banishment, so times do change. Values do too. The earliest known law books include the Sumerian code of Ur-Nammu, which explicitly outlaws murder and condemns the perp to death. It was written over 4,000 years ago.

Code of HammurabiCredit: Louvre museum
The Lipit-Ishtar laws: What thou shalt not to with thine rental oxenCredit: Francis Rue Steele

The subsequent Babylonian Law Code of Hammurabi, written over 3,700 years ago, also prescribes “an eye for an eye” and lists other crimes punishable with the death penalty, including robbery, kidnapping, rape in certain circumstances and – markedly – making false accusations.

Yet another ancient set of laws appears in the Sumerian Code of Lipit-Ishtar from about 3,900 years ago. Only fragments survive and have been interpreted, and they’re not the ones dealing with homicide, though it is clear how they felt about their magnificent ruler Lipit-Ishtar and abuse of rental oxen

In any case, it seems that in the beginning, the Torah, with the book of Genesis, was written by multiple people over time and probably later than these Sumerian and Mesopotamian lists of laws. “There are different layers in Genesis,” says Gilad, who thinks the earliest “layer” may date to the late sixth century B.C.E. But there’s no consensus on that.

Anyway, murder in Mesopotamia if not done in the name of a god was already a no-no – even though, according to their belief, all humans incorporate the blood and flesh of a god within them, who had been murdered for the sake of their genesis.

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