‘But if he strikes him with an iron implement, so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death' - Numbers 35:16
Murder and revenge go back to the dawn of time, but the 1,000-year old skull and severed hand bones found in a cave in the Jerusalem hills are the first solid evidence of blood vengeance, say archaeologists involved in the excavation. The age of the remains was assessed using carbon-14 dating.
Indications that the skullcap and right hand bones indicate feud as opposed to humdrum murder and hurried concealment of the body, include the fact that few other human remains were found at the site.
It is true that when the cave was found, the first discovery was that it had been looted, as often happens in Middle Eastern archaeological sites.
"The thieves left the bones behind," says Dr. Yossi Nagar, an anthropologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority. It is hardly likely that there had been other bones that the robbers took with them, or simply tossed into the nearby wadi, he adds.
The remains were carbon dated to the 10th-11th centuries C.E.
But why would the discovery of the isolated severed head and right hand, found in a survey of the cave by Prof. Boaz Zissu of Bar-Ilan University, indicate blood vengeance specifically?
For one thing, the head and right hand have symbolic importance going back in time, through to this day. Nagar cites an ethnographic text dating from the early 20th century describing a case of blood vengeance: a Bedouin family were given the head and right hand of one of their members who had committed a murder – the same body parts found in the cave outside Jerusalem.
Also, the thousand-year-old victim had evidently been no stranger to violence himself. His skullcap showed two past injuries that had healed, as well as the mark of a sword blow that most likely killed him.
For what it's worth, the bones belonged to a person aged 25 to 40, say Nagar and Dr. Haim Cohen of the National Center for Forensic Medicine and Tel Aviv University.
Circumstantial evidence for the popularity of blood vengeance lies in its prohibition in Islam, Nagar adds.
There are many ancient texts about murder and vengeance, and the Bible goes to great lengths to curb it, but this was the first earliest physical evidence of the practice found so far, the researchers say.
The only other bones found in the remote cave were two vertebrae. Nagar dismisses the hypothesis that hyenas or other scavengers carried off the rest of the body: there are no gnaw marks on the skull or hand bones.