Sep 28, 2015 | By Benedict

Although the iconic opening scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey suggests that lethal interpersonal violence goes right back to the dawn of man, actual scientific findings have generally painted a slightly different picture. Despite much evidence for interpersonal violence in the Pleistocene epoch, rarely has it been found as a cause of death. However, the discovery of a 430,000 year old skull in Spain and use of 3D modeling technology has provided researchers with fascinating new insight into prehistoric murder.

The skull, known as specimen Cr-17, was recovered from the Middle Pleistocene site Sima de los Huesos (“the Pit of the Bones”), and has been reconstructed from 52 fragments. The cranium, as can be seen in the photographs, has two holes in the centre-right of the forehead, fractures which were apparently inflicted close to the time of the victim’s death. The fractures suggest a double blunt force trauma. 

What researchers wished to figure out was whether this trauma was caused intentionally by another hominin, and whether it was in fact the cause of this unfortunate fellow’s death. According to the researchers, cranial and postcranial trauma are relatively common among Middle and Upper Pleistocene hominins, who regularly received cranial trauma from accidents and carnivore attacks.

To find out for sure, researchers CT scanned the skull layer by layer to enable 3D imaging. Using Mimics, the 3D imaging and modelling software produced by 3D printing specialists Materialise, researchers converted the resulting 1,108 slices into a virtual 3D model, from which analysts could measure the fracture angles on the virtual model, get a good look at the shape of the injuries, and calculate the impact trajectories for each fracture.

Images from Materialise

When the results came in, the researchers’ suspicions were confirmed. Analysis from Mimics showed that the cranium belonged to a young adult. Crucially, because of the shape, size, and location of the two fractures, researchers believe that both fractures were inflicted with the same object, in a face-to-face conflict between Cr-17 and another hominin. The findings also showed that the two fractures occurred just prior to death. This could be proven by taking a close look at the definition of the fracture. Unlike postmortem fractures (damage to bones which occurs after death), perimortem fractures (occurring during, or just before, death) such as those on Cr-17 occur while the bone is still surrounded by soft tissue, and the fracture properties are well-defined. Researchers could also rule out the possibility of Cr-17’s trauma being the result of a predator attack: a lack of tooth marks or other carnivore manipulation confirmed this.

3D imaging software developed by a 3D printing technology firm was thus able to confirm that the trauma to Cr-17 had been intentionally caused by another hominin. The multiple blows imply a clear intention to kill. The findings show that murder is in fact an ancient human behaviour, and represents the earliest murder case in the hominin fossil record. 

Although the Cr-17 mystery has now been solved, there remains one lingering worry: with Stanley Kubrick now vindicated for his depiction of a murderous, bone-wielding prehistoric man, should we be worried about a 3D-printed HAL 9000 murdering the additive manufacturing community? Only time will tell.



Posted in 3D Software



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