April 7, 2009


Tears for Middle Pleistocene human Cranium 14: An amazing archeological finding in Spain reveals the deep humanity of our distant ancestors. (Michael Cook, 4/06/09, MercatorNet)

Cranium 14 was discovered in the famous archeological site of Atapuerca. Scattered throughout several caves in the area are the bones and tools of the earliest humans found in Europe. The most interesting findings are to be found in Sima de los Huesos (the pit of the bones). This site is located at the bottom of a 13-metre (50-foot) deep chimney which has to be accessed by scrambling through caves. Twenty-eight people of both sexes rest in pieces, smashed into thousands of fragments.

No one knows exactly how and why the bones tumbled there, but it may have been a burial ground. Another theory is that they were washed down when the cave flooded. No matter. The point is that more than 30 fragments belonged to a little girl aged between 5 and 12. Nameless now, she has been christened Cranium 14 by the anthropologists.

Any relics this old offer precious clues to the lives of our distant ancestors. But when the researchers reconstructed Cranium 14’s fragments, they discovered something very surprising: she appears to have been severely mentally retarded. They know this because she clearly suffered from craniosynostosis, a birth defect in which the skull segments close too early, producing facial deformities and interfering with the development of the brain.

The particular skull distortion of the child in Sima de Huesos affects fewer than 6 in 200,000 individuals in living humans. It is distressing for parents. The head can be large and misshapen, the eyes can bulge out. The children can be blind and deaf. Their limbs may be deformed. They may have seizures and feed poorly. Cranio-facial surgery works wonders and after many, many operations, an affected child can lead something like a normal life. Even so, the story of a child with the condition makes for painful reading. Many doctors would advise mothers to terminate the pregnancy.

Here’s the remarkable thing. The hunter-gatherer Middle Pleistocene family of Cranium 14 must have cared for the child or she would not have survived for at least five years, and perhaps as many as 12 years. In the dry-as-dust words of the article, "It is obvious that the [Sima de Huesos] hominin species did not act against the abnormal/ill individuals during the infancy, as has happened along our own history many times and in many cultures".

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 7, 2009 8:45 PM
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