Halloween stories from human evolution

Each human fossil tells a story about human evolution. But also a story about their lives. And that story can also be spooky, perfect for Halloween.


When studying our ancestors it’s easy to forget the fossils we find were once real people. They aren’t just data points in a research article, but living creatures with their own story to tell. And their story can sometimes be spooky, just right for Halloween.

So gather round boys and ghouls. Tonight lets celebrate the fact that fossils are people too in a seasonally appropriate way. Here are some spooky stories from human evolution.

Killed by another species

We are the only human species alive on the planet. However, that’s a rather unusual state of affairs. For almost the entirety of our evolution, there have been at least 2 types of people living side by side. Most recently we lived alongside the Neanderthals, but we didn’t always get along.

This is the tale of Shanidar 3, whom I will call Shandy.

Now, Shandy was a Neanderthal man that was buried in Shaindar cave, Iraq (hence the name). He – like most Neanderthals in his group – had a tough life. When he was younger he’d taken a massive blow to the foot, crippling him. But Shandy’s group cared for him, helping him to live to the ripe old age of 50.

Thanks to this, Shandy got to see a major moment in prehistory: the invasion of Neanderthal Eurasia by modern humans. And these modern humans killed him.

Shandy’s rib wound

One fateful Halloween 50,000 years ago, Shandy was limping along on his one good leg. Then, from out of nowhere, came the faint whistling of a dart travelling through the air. Before he could react, it struck him in the chest,  smashing along a rib and puncturing his lung. Somewhere in the distance, a modern human had used their advanced projectile weapons to attack this elderly Neanderthal.

But if we’ve learnt anything about Shandy, it was that he’s tough. This didn’t kill him. He made it back to Shanidar cave and his wound was treated. Thanks to this Shandy survived for at least another fortnight, perhaps more. But despite his best efforts, this wasn’t enough. Shandy eventually succumbed to his injuries.

Shandy had lived a tough life but, cared for by those around him, it had been a long one.

Eaten at home

At the end of the day, Shandy may have seemed unlucky. But at least he was safe at home, living with a caring group. Not all ancient humans were so lucky.

This is the story of ThI94-UA28-7, or – since that’s a mouthful – Thlua.

We don’t know much about Thlua, since we’ve only found their thigh bone. But that’s enough to tell a Halloween story in its own right. Thlua seems to have been part of an ancient group of humans living in Morocco 500,000 years ago. At the time these were hunter-gatherer, so may have travelled around the country. But they spent at least some of their time living in a cave on the coast, which is now called GH cavity (all the names in this story are a bit a rubbish).

Thlua’s group likely returned to the cave several times and had probably been doing so for generations. This led to the accumulation of Palaeolithic garbage on the cave floor more than a metre thick. However, in the offseason, the GH cavity didn’t stay empty. At least some of the time Hyenas lived there; perhaps attracted by the detritus Thlua and their friends left behind.

Toothmarks on Thlua’s thigh

One Halloween Thlua was near GH cavity in that offseason. Perhaps they’d gotten lost and were looking for shelter, or were simply the first to arrive for their annual stay at the cave. The exact reasons aren’t important. What is important is that their home wasn’t empty. Those Hyenas were still there.

When in a group, Thlua was quite good at fighting off carnivores. But this time they were alone.  The only bit of Thlua that made it into their old cave was the femur, gnawed and chewed by the carnivores they time-shared their cave with.

The worlds oldest murder

Hyenas weren’t the only things ancient humans had to worry about 500,000 years ago. In Spain they were facing a different, deadlier problem: each other.

This is the story of Cranium 17, who shall be named Crandy.

Crandy may have been older than Shandy in absolute years, but was actually younger at the time of death; perhaps in his 20s. With just a skull we lack a lot of archaeological context, so we don’t know much about what Crandy was doing with their life. Except they seem to have made an enemy in the process.

One Halloween this enemy found Crandy. At the time, Crandy seems to have been minding his own business. His defences were down, perhaps because he knew his attacker. Or was just having a merry time with his friends. If he did have mates, they weren’t much help. Crandy was attacked, quickly and violently, before he – or anyone he was with – could react.

Crandy and his wounds

His attacker hit him twice on the front of the head with a rock or other blunt weapon. This blunt force trauma caused severe skull depressions, likely killing him. There are no further signs of the struggle after the initial blows. His body was then tossed down the pit of bones, where it laid to rest with more than 30 others.

This was clearly the common funeral practice for Crandy’s group, perhaps a sign the murderer was part of it. Or perhaps they felt remorse at what they did. Or maybe they wanted to hide the evidence, which backfired somewhat. It ensured Crandy’s remains survived for hundreds of thousands of years!

References

Churchill, S.E., Franciscus, R.G., McKean-Peraza, H.A., Daniel, J.A. and Warren, B.R., 2009. Shanidar 3 Neandertal rib puncture wound and paleolithic weaponry. Journal of human evolution57(2), pp.163-178.

Daujeard, C., Geraads, D., Gallotti, R., Lefèvre, D., Mohib, A., Raynal, J.P. and Hublin, J.J., 2016. Pleistocene hominins as a resource for carnivores: A c. 500,000-year-old human femur bearing tooth-marks in North Africa (Thomas Quarry I, Morocco). PloS one11(4), p.e0152284.

Sala, N., Arsuaga, J.L., Pantoja-Pérez, A., Pablos, A., Martínez, I., Quam, R.M., Gómez-Olivencia, A., de Castro, J.M.B. and Carbonell, E., 2015. Lethal interpersonal violence in the Middle Pleistocene. PLoS One10(5), p.e0126589.

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2 thoughts on “Halloween stories from human evolution”

  1. szopeno says:

    I am a bit confused about a story of Thlua. Was that one person or many?

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Thlua was one person, whose femur we have found. Given we have just the femur, we can’t assign a sex to them so I have to use “they/their” to describe them; which could create the false impression they were more than one person. They weren’t, we just don’t know much about them.

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