We learned to kill before we became Homo Sapiens. That is the rather sobering interpretation of a rather sobering discovery: the oldest known murder. We don’t know the victim’s age or even sex but we do know a couple of things about him or her. He or she was an Homo heidelbergensis. In other words s/he was an early humanid who was, in many ways, a pioneer. Homo heidelbergensis were the first to live in cold climates, to build shelters, to hunt large animals, and, it seems, the first to commit murder.
We don’t know anything about the murderer and precious little about the victim. So we have no way of discerning the motive. But we do can say a bit about the community these particular Homo heidelbergensis inhabited. They lived in a cave in what appears to have been a very close-knit community, near where they buried their dead in a mass grave. There were twenty-eight other bodies found in the grave where the murderer (having killed his victim by breaking his skull twice with a sharp object) deposited the body. The other bodies in the mass grave all appear to have had health problems and all appear to have been cared for.
Having hid the body, the murdered then appears to have hidden the weapon. Other tools were found at the site—but none were of the right shape to have caused the in the skull of our 430,000 year old murder victim. In other words, whoever the murderer was, whatever his or motive might have been, he did his best to hide all evidence of his crime. So this is not simply the first known murder; it is also the first known cold case.
This is not to say that our ancestors have not been killing before that. Chimpanzees, for example, wage war. But chimpanzees wage war on members of other chimp tribes; they do not appear to try to kill adult members of their own clans. The young are fair game—for reasons not entirely clear to us, ape and chimp mothers will often kill and eat their own children. But here we have a hominim killing an adult member of his/her own tribe. A close-knit tribe at that.
“So what?” you might be asking. “This happened almost half a million years ago. What does any of it have to do with me?” Plenty. Debate has long raged as to whether humans are naturally predisposed to violence or whether it is our environment (poverty, lack of love, lack of attention) that makes us hurt one another. The old is it nature or is it nurture question.
The discovery of this half-million year old murder seems to shift the balance of evidence to those who would say it’s nature. That does not mean, of course that we cannot control ourselves. We most demonstrably can and (most of the time) do.
But should that control lapse… well, it turns out we were murdering one another long before we evolved into Homo Sapiens.