National Geographic News
A diagram shows where a human cranium was struck.

Two views of Maba Man's skull show the position (bottom) and closeup detail of the ancient human's head wound.

Diagram courtesy University of the Witwatersrand

James Owen

for National Geographic News

Published November 22, 2011

A viciously bashed prehistoric skull from China offers some of the earliest known evidence for violence between humans—but also suggests the ancient aggressors had a caring side.

The discovery is based on CT scans of a 126,000-year-old human known as Maba Man, so named because his fossil remains were found near Maba in Guangdong Province in 1958.

(Related: "Oldest Modern Human Outside of Africa Found.")

The scans revealed a skull fracture caused by blunt force trauma. The victim was probably clubbed with a weapon such as a stone, heavy bone, or lump of wood, according to a new study.

"This person had a pretty serious injury—it would have been a real good knock to the head," said team member Lynne Schepartz, of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

The blow likely caused bleeding and a concussion—inducing nausea, vomiting, and perhaps even brain damage—leaving the victim prone and helpless, Schepartz said.

(Related: "Wounded Iceman Made Epic Final Journey, Moss Shows.")

But the scans also showed that the wound eventually healed and that Maba Man lived for years afterward, something that means the hurt man was likely cared for after his injury.

"The bone was depressed inward, pressing on soft tissue," Schepartz said. "And yet this person survived for a long period of time and it was not the immediate cause of [his] death."

Depending on Others to Survive

Although accidental injury can't be ruled out, modern forensic science and other evidence points to foul play, the team reports.

"It's hard to imagine how you would get just that one area of impact from, say, a fall," Schepartz commented.

Despite the blow, the remains show that Maba Man lived until his 40s—a ripe old age for a prehistoric human.

The team says his recovery supports evidence from previous fossil studies that Neanderthals and other ancient humans, while often violently aggressive, also took care of their sick and vulnerable.

(Related: "King Tut Died in Hunting Accident, Expert Says.")

Maba Man's convalescence would have taken days if not weeks, Schepartz noted.

"He probably had to rest up and needed help with food and cooking," she said.

"In a hunting-gathering society of that sort, you would really be dependent on others to help you out."

The ancient head wound is described online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.

Also see "Human Meat Just Another Meal for Early Europeans?"

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