Cold case: A&M professor helps determine 1,300-year-old murder victim

December 1st, 2021


The skull of a 1,300-year-old murder victim, discovered in an old grave robber’s shaft in China.

“It’s a case of homicide, that’s for sure,” says Dr. Qian Wang, professor in biomedical sciences at Texas A&M College of Dentistry, of a crime he recently helped solve. This particular cold case was older than most, however: 1,300 years old to be exact.

The discovery, reported only a few weeks ago in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, made headlines in several media outlets including Live Science and the South China Morning Post, detailing the scientists’ sleuth work. Wang is the lead author of this paper.

The mystery dates to around 2002, when construction crews in the Ningxia region of China discovered an ancient tomb. Archaeologists excavated the site twice several years later, when a body was discovered in a large shaft leading down into the tomb. This particular skeleton was found in 2009, Wang says, but its importance did not become clear until 2019 when it was screened for bone pathology and trauma. He was informed about the skeleton immediately when its uniqueness was determined, and he and his team spent a year conducting their research.

The shaft would have been dug by grave robbers, Wang says. This led to the assumption that the body in the shaft was another grave robber, but a review of the skeleton suggests that he was, in fact, a murder victim whose body was hidden there.

“Looking at all these nasty kind of injuries on his skeleton, he died of assault,” Wang says. “He wouldn’t be part of the original robberies. But who was this guy, and who assaulted him? Just one guy or a group of people? That information is lost to history. At least we can say he wasn’t one of these grave robbers; at least we cleared his name!”

The skeleton revealed several scars across the man’s face and body, indicating he was attacked with a sword, Wang says. He also points out a fracture in the man’s forearm, indicating that he was holding his arm out trying to defend himself from attack.

Radiocarbon dating reveals the man was alive around 1,300 years ago. However, the tomb and its original occupants are 700 years older than that, dating to the Han Dynasty era. It is unlikely a grave robber would attempt to steal from a tomb that old, which already showed signs of being robbed, Wang says. The man was killed, potentially near the spot, and his body was thrown down the shaft to hide the evidence, says Wang, adding that hiding a body in a grave robber’s shaft would be akin to “hiding a leaf in the forest.”

A depiction of the grave robber’s shaft, where the skeleton was located. The shaft was about 6.5 meters deep, and roughly 2 to 2.2 meters wide. The skeleton was found about 2 meters from the surface.

As fascinating as a millennium-old cold case is, there were other interesting facts from this excavation site, Wang explains. The tomb held three occupants: a man, a woman, and a child. Wang says that scarring on the man’s skull suggested he had a tumor of some kind. Another discovery was that the size of the shaft dug by the grave robbers suggested a high level of organization. It was too big for just one person to dig on their own, he says, but rather an organized group effort. The robbery could have been sanctioned by military leaders or warlords looking for treasure to pay their troops, he suggested.

“Long story short, we figured out this was definitely a homicide case,” Wang says. “His body was dumped over there to avoid sighting and punishment.”

Wang initiated the Global History of Health Project – Asia Module in 2018, an international collaborative effort that seeks to learn more about ancient humans and how their health varied through different environmental and social changes. The organization is examining skeletal collections from a variety of countries: China, Mongolia, Russia, India, and more.

Wang has been noted for other archaeological discoveries, including finding the earliest confirmed examples of intentional head modification (elongated skulls) dating back 13,000 years, and a 1,500-year-old joint burial with two skeletons locked in embrace for eternal love Wang’s current research is funded by two National Science Foundation grants.

— Caleb Vierkant