How 10 ancient humans met their death

How 10 ancient humans met their death

The purpose of an inquest into an individual’s death is to answer 4 questions: the identity of the deceased, place of death, time of death and cause of death.

We assess the likeliest causes of death of 10 individuals who met their end between 3.3 million and 25,000 years ago, based on their fossilized remains.


1.  Likely cause of death:  Drowning

Identity of the deceased:  Selam (a 3 year-old female Australopithecus afarensis)

Place of death:  Dikika, Ethopia

Time of death:  3.3 million years ago


Selam (named after the word for peace in several Ethiopian languages) is the earliest known child from humanity’s family tree.  Her species was among the first to walk upright on two legs and, while their intellect was more similar to a chimpanzee’s than a modern human’s, their brain had already started to evolve in the direction that would produce modern human intelligence.  Selam’s remains were set in sandstone, which suggests that she fell into flood waters and was rapidly buried in the sedimentary deposit.


2.  Likely cause of death:  Attacked and killed by an eagle

Identity of the deceased:  The Taung Child  (a 3 year-old male Australopithecus africanus)

Place of death:  Taung, South Africa

Time of death:  2.8 million years ago

Taung Child

Puncture marks and depression fractures found at the bottom of the boy’s eye sockets resemble those made by a modern eagle’s sharp talons and beak when they attack monkeys in Africa today.  The site where the boy’s skull was discovered also included eggshells and an unusual mixture of small animal bones (including hyrax, rodents, tortoises, lizards, crabs, small antelopes, and small baboons).  Many of the bones also had damage resembling that made by modern birds of prey.


3.  Likely cause of death:  Vitamin A poisoning

Homo erectus femaleIdentity of the deceased:  KNM-ER 1808  (an adult female Homo erectus)

Place of death:  Koobi Fora, Kenya

Time of death:  1.7 million years ago

An abnormal outer layer of bone on KNM-ER 1808’s femur (thigh bone) shows evidence of bleeding just before she died.  This abnormal bone growth suggests an over-concentration of vitamin A in her diet, which causes the tissues around the bone to tear, bleed and form huge clots.  KNM-ER 1808 may have been poisoned by an over-consumption of vitamin A rich foods, such as honeybee eggs, pupae and larvae, or the livers of carnivorous animals.


4.  Likely cause of death:  Septicemia (blood poisoning) from tooth infection

Identity of the deceased:  Turkana Boy (an 8 year-old male Homo ergaster)

Place of death:  Nariokotome, near Lake Turkana, Kenya

Time of death:  1.6 million years ago

Turkana Boy

Turkana Boy’s skeleton is the most well preserved early human specimen ever found.  Although he died young, his bones show that he did not die from an attack by a wild animal because his nearly complete skeleton shows no damage from either predators or scavengers.  It was thought that a severely herniated disc in his spine may have been implicated with his death, but it occurred several months before.  The disabling backache he suffered would have required care and nursing and might have, at least, temporarily restricted his daily activities.  It was staining on his mandible that showed he had a diseased gum from the loss of one of his teeth.  An infection had set in which, untreated, had turned to septicemia.


SK 54 skull cap with leopard jaw

5.  Likely cause of death:  Attacked and killed by a leopard

Identity of the deceased:  SK-54 (an adolescent Paranthropus robustus)

Place of death:  Swartkrans, South Africa

Time of death:  1.5 million years ago

SK-54’s skull cap was found with 2 puncture wounds in it.  Initially thought to be the result of an attack by a pointed weapon, the distance between the wounds were later found to exactly match the distance between the lower canine teeth of an ancient species of African leopard.  The wounds were probably made as SK-54 was dragged to the leopard’s feeding place, thought to be up a tree.  The left-overs of the leopard’s meal fell from the tree and dropped into a the cavity of a cave system below, the bones of which were later preserved as fossils.


Boxgrove Man

6.  Likely cause of death:  Attacked and killed by a wolf

Identity of the deceased:  Boxgrove Man (an adult male Homo heidelbergensis)

Place of death:  Boxgrove Quarry, West Sussex, England

Time of death:  500,000 years ago

Today Boxgrove Quarry lies on a flat coastal plain close to the English Channel.  Half a million years ago it lay at the foot of chalk cliffs 600 feet high, which have since been totally eroded.  It was here that Boxgrove Man met his end beside an ancient stream.  His remains – two teeth and a shin bone – are the oldest hominin fossils so far found in Britain.  Both ends of the shin bone had been gnawed off, probably by a wolf.


7.  Likely cause of death:  Septicemia from broken teeth in violent attack

Identity of the deceased:  Miguelón (a 30 year-old male Homo heidelbergensis)

Place of death:  Atapuerca Mountains, Spain

Time of death:  400,000 years ago


Miguelón’s skull was found in the Sima de los Huesos (pit of bones) site located at the bottom of a deep chimney in the cave system of the Cueva Mayor.  He had sustained 13 impacts in the head.  One blow had been strong enough to break his teeth and expose the flesh, which led to infection and the onset of septicemia.


8.  Likely cause of death:  Rock fall inside cave

Identity of the deceased:  Shanidar 2 (approx 30 year-old male Neanderthal)

Place of death:  Shanidar Cave, Bradost Mountain, Iraqi Kurdistan

Time of death:  60,000 years ago

Shanidar 2

Shanidar 2 was one ten Neanderthals whose remains, ranging from 35,000 to 65,000 years old, were been found within the Shanidar Cave.  He evidently died in a rock fall inside the cave, as his skull and bones were crushed.  He was buried with ceremony, as a small pile of stones with some worked stone points were found on top of his grave.  Also, there had been a large fire by the burial site.


9.  Likely cause of death:  Complications from stab wound, possibly from thrown spear

Identity of the deceased:  Shanidar 3 (approx 45 year-old male Neanderthal)

Place of death:  Shanidar Cave, Bradost Mountain, Iraqi Kurdistan

Time of death:  60,000 years ago

Shanidar Nenaderthals

Shanidar 3 was found in the same grave as Shanidar 2 and his body had already sustained much wear and tear during his life, including healed traumatic injuries and a degenerative joint disorder in his foot resulting from a fracture or sprain, which would have resulted in painful, limited movement.  What killed him were complications from a stab wound to his rib, the angle of which suggests a long range projectile spear (which would have been hurled with a powerful boost from a detachable handles by a modern human, who seemed to posses this technology while Neanderthals did not).  Bone growth around the wound indicates that Shanidar 3 lived for at least several weeks after the injury with the object still embedded, but succumbed perhaps to associated lung damage.


10.  Likely cause of death:  Complications in childbirth

Identity of the deceased:  Ostuni 1 (a 20 year-old female modern human)

Place of death:  Cave of Santa Maria D’Agnano, Ostuni, Italy

Time of death:  25,000 years ago

Ostuni 1 was found buried with some ceremony in a head dress made of hundreds of small shells and ornaments made from the teeth of horses and primitive oxen.  She was in a crouched position, with her left hand placed under her head and her right hand resting on her stomach, as if to protect the remains of an 8 month fetus that lay within her bones.

Ostuni 1

Sources:,,  Australian Museum,  National Geographic,  New York Times,  Smithsonian,  Wikipedia

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