The Kabwe skull

The Kabwe skull: not Neanderthal, not shot…

A number of books and internet sites make the claim that The British Museum (Natural History) in London holds the skull of a Neanderthal, dated 38,000 years old and excavated in 1921 at Kabwe in what is now Zambia. The left side of the skull displays a circular hole about 8 mm in diameter. None of the radial split-lines that would have been left had the hole been made by a cold projectile, such as a spear, are visible around the hole. On the opposite side of the skull, the parietal bone is shattered, as if skull was blown up from inside. Two solutions have been proposed: either the skull is from something that lived in recent centuries and was shot by a European, or there were rifles in Palaeolithic Africa.

Virtually nothing is correct in these claims. The Kabwe skull (often known as ‘Broken Hill Man’ after the name of a nearby town) is older than the claim, at 125,000 to 300,000 years old, and it was found on 17 June 1921 by a Swiss miner, Tom Zwiglaar, in a limestone cave. It was the first early human fossil to be found in Africa and was sent to Arthur Smith Woodward (1864-1944), who gave it the new species name Homo rhodesiensis (Rhodesian Man). More recent anthropologists have preferred to see it as a primitive form of Homo sapiens, but are undecided on the precise species. It may be related to Homo heidelbergensis, the ancestor of the predominantly European Neanderthals (there were never any Neanderthals in Africa) or it may indeed be a separate species, Homo rhodesiensis, as Arthur Smith Woodward originally proposed, which would be our direct ancestor.

So much for the species and the date. What about the “bullet hole”? Well, for one thing, it did not kill the individual. The edges of the lesion have started to heal, so whatever caused the hole was not the cause of death. Instead, the wound appears to have been a pathological, rather than a traumatic lesion, caused by an infection in the soft tissue over it. Few individuals survive a bullet to the brain; needless to say, the parietal bone on the opposite side is not shattered, as is claimed, but is mostly intact. Although part of the lower parietal bone has broken off, the break is not a result of shattering. It looks more like damage that occurred after the flesh had decayed. The individual may thus have died from a pathological condition, perhaps an abscess or ulcer that had become septic.