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In Images: Ancient Skull Reveals Brain Damage

Ancient skulls

skull of child with brain damage

(Image credit: COQUEUGNIOT et al, PLOS ONE, 2014)

A 3D reconstruction of a Paleolithic skull has revealed one of the oldest cases of brain damage. The child, who died 100,000 years ago, suffered severe head trauma (the lesion is shown with arrows and in close-up in panel D). The child survived for several years after the brain-stunting blow.

Rich site

qafzeh-9 skull

(Image credit: Wapondaponda, Wikimedia Commons)

The child's body came from Qafzeh cave in Galilee, Israel, which also harbored many other skeletons, such as this reconstruction of another skull from the site.

New analysis

paleolithic skull

(Image credit: COQUEUGNIOT et al, PLOS ONE, 2014)

Though a fracture was clearly visible, researchers created a cast of the internal space in the skull, as well as using 3D computed tomography (CT) scanning to understand the nature of the trauma.

Severe injury

paleolithic child skull reconstruction

(Image credit: Coqueugniot H, Dutour O, Arensburg B, Duday H, Vandermeersch B, et al. (2014) Earliest Cranio-Encephalic Trauma from the Levantine Middle Palaeolithic: 3D Reappraisal of the Qafzeh 11 Skull, Consequences of Pediatric Brain Damage on Individual Life Condit)

The reconstruction revealed that the child experienced a compound fracture, with bits of skull depressed inward.

Halting growth

graph of brain size in brain damaged child

(Image credit: COQUEUGNIOT et al, PLOS ONE, 2014)

The blow stunted the child's brain growth, with brain size (shown here as the dot labeled Qafzeh 11) akin to that of a 6- or 7-year old, even though the child died at age 13.

Ancient compassion

the paleolithic skull of a child with brain damage

(Image credit: COQUEUGNIOT et al, PLOS ONE, 2014)

As the child probably couldn't have survived on his or her own, other humans must have cared for the child. The find may be one of the oldest examples of compassion in modern humans.

Tia Ghose
Tia has interned at Science News,, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and has written for the Center for Investigative Reporting, Scientific American, and ScienceNow. She has a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California Santa Cruz.