Ancient Violence in Iraq

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It’s a sad case of violence in Iraq: evidence of human-on-human violence from more than 50,000 years ago (allegedly).

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What makes the case unique is that the victim was a Neanderthal—specifically, an individual now called Shanidar 3, judged to be between 40 and 50 years old. In addition to signs of arthritis, one of Shanidar 3’s ribs shows a deep slice—presumably the only remaining sign of what was once a lethal wound.

“What we’ve got is a rib injury, with any number of scenarios that could explain it,” said Duke University evolutionary anthropologist Steven Churchill, one of the researchers on Shanidar 3. (Shanidar 3 was one of nine Neanderthals found in the 1950s in a cave in northeastern Iraq.)

Churchill and colleagues used crossbows to fire spears into animal carcasses to learn the sort of damage ancient spears may have caused. By varying the force of the crossbows, the team simulated the difference between thrusting spears and long-range projectile weapons.

As it turns out, the high-force attempts (simulating a direct spear thrust) did too much damage, breaking ribs rather than slicing them. Imitating the force of lighter projectile weapons, however, made “distinct cut marks in the bones without injuring surrounding bones,” said Churchill. Another insight came when the team compared the wound with injury records from the U.S. Civil War and realized Shanidar 3’s wound probably healed slightly. The scientists concluded that the Neanderthal probably received the wound weeks before he died, perhaps succumbing to lung damage.

The study turns speculative, however, when it comes to fingering a suspect. Archaeological evidence suggests non-Neanderthal humans favored spear throwers, devices that held spears or darts and enabled longer-distance and more powerful throwing. Neanderthals preferred long thrusting spears, it seems, with more sophisticated spear tips.

Thus, the researchers believe Shanidar 3 may have been killed by a non-Neanderthal. For evolutionists—who consider Neanderthals and “modern humans” to have been separate species—the facts in the case of Mr. Shanidar are particularly suggestive. Referencing evidence of another murdered Neanderthal, Churchill claimed, “If the Shanidar 3 case is also a case of inter-specific violence and if Shanidar 3 overlaps in time with modern humans, we’re beginning to get a little bit of a pattern here.”

Creationists view Neanderthals as fully human and thus should consider Shanidar 3’s fate as typical of many humans across history ever since Cain murdered Abel in Genesis 4. The death of Shanidar 3 need not be interpreted in a grand evolutionary scheme of “us versus them” or “interspecies aggression,” as Churchill puts it. Rather, if skin and hair were routinely preserved, we would find plentiful evidence of violence between members of different people groups even though all were human.

If anything, Shanidar 3’s apparent murder reminds us that Neanderthals and “the rest of us” shared the same earth, lived in the same ways, and descended from the same first man and first woman. The more interesting debate is whether Neanderthals went entirely extinct (as have, no doubt, other people groups) or whether their genes survive in many modern Europeans, as some studies have suggested.

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