A New Theory About the Extinct Neanderthal Species Creates a Deadly Picture

Our ancient human relatives were innovative, skilled hunters.

Neanderthals probably weren’t the hunched-over dimwits they’re made out to be, and in fact, they may have been gifted weapon-makers — and deadly users.

New research on Neanderthal spears, the oldest weapons ever discovered by archaeologists, suggests they actually flew pretty dang far, with enough accuracy to take down a large animal like, say, a four-toed prehistoric horse.

A new conclusion like this complicates the picture painted by previous work, which suggested that the spears made by Homo neanderthalis were mostly for close-up thrusting and cutting. It turns out that Neanderthals might have been gold medal-quality javelin throwers, even if their primitive spears wouldn’t travel as far as modern ones.

In this paper, published Friday in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of researchers at University College London — aided by six fit javelin throwers — tested replicas of 300,000-year-old Neanderthal spears found in Germany. They found that the athletes, who were recruited to simulate the strength of Neanderthal hunters, could throw the spears more than 65 feet in some cases, with enough accuracy to hit a bale of hay that simulated the “kill zone” of a horse-sized animal.

An athlete throws a replica of a Neanderthal spear at a hay bale, meant to represent the kill zone of a horse.
Throw it at the kill zone.

When the hay bale was 10 meters (32.8 feet) away, the athletes hit it 25 percent of the time. They achieved the same level of accuracy at 15 meters (49.2 feet), and at 20 meters (65.6 feet), they still hit it 17 percent of the time.

They Hunted in Packs

Those distances may not sound like impressive figures, but if Neanderthals hunted in coordinated groups, as previous research has suggested, then a group of hunters throwing all at once would likely score at least one hit. Perhaps most importantly, video analysis of the spear throws revealed that when the spears in the experiment did hit, they penetrated the hay bale with enough force to pierce the flesh of an animal.

“This is yet further evidence narrowing the gap between Neanderthals and modern humans,” Annemieke Milks, Ph.D., an archeologist at University College London and the study’s first author, tells Forbes. “It contributes to revised views of Neanderthals as our clever and capable cousins.”

Milks’s team’s work builds on recent research on neanderthal hunting, as documented in a June 2018 paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution, that shows evidence of a deer skeleton that had clearly been killed by Neanderthal hunters, presumably at close range. In an accompanying article, Milks outlined how Neanderthals are typically assumed to have been close-up hunters, and if they occasionally threw spears, it was likely from short distances. Her new study pokes holes in that idea and provides evidence that their weapons were quite capable of flying moderately long distances with lethal velocity.

“This study is important because it adds to a growing body of evidence that Neanderthals were technologically savvy and had the ability to hunt big game through a variety of hunting strategies, not just risky close encounters,” she tells Forbes.

One of the Schöningen spears in its excavation site.
One of the Schöningen spears in its excavation site.

“This experiment convincingly shows that in the hands of skilled users, spears are capable of killing at greater distances than previously thought,” Jayne Wilkins, Ph.D., an archeologist at the University of Cape Town who wasn’t involved in the study, tells The Atlantic. “This matters because it challenges a long-held idea” about how early humans used weapons.

300,000-Year-Old Spears

The spears that the javelin throwers used for the study were replicas of a set of artifacts called the Schöningen spears, which were found in Germany in the 1990s. These 300,000-year-old spears, of which there were 10 complete or near-complete examples at the dig site, were made of spruce wood and were pointed at both ends. The dual points suggest that the weapons could have been both ranged and close-up weapons, but the new evidence lends support to the idea that they were definitely capable at range.

This work continues to fill out a more complete picture of our ancient human relatives, a picture that used to depict them as brutish and unintelligent. Previously, scientists have found compelling evidence that Neanderthals made art and cared for each other, and now we know that they were technological whizzes as well.

Abstract: The appearance of weaponry — technology designed to kill — is a critical but poorly established threshold in human evolution. It is an important behavioural marker representing evolutionary changes in ecology, cognition, language and social behaviours. While the earliest weapons are often considered to be hand-held and consequently short-ranged, the subsequent appearance of distance weapons is a crucial development. Projectiles are seen as an improvement over contact weapons, and are considered by some to have originated only with our own species in the Middle Stone Age and Upper Palaeolithic. Despite the importance of distance weapons in the emergence of full behavioral modernity, systematic experimentation using trained throwers to evaluate the ballistics of thrown spears during flight and at impact is lacking. This paper addresses this by presenting results from a trial of trained javelin athletes, providing new estimates for key performance parameters. Overlaps in distances and impact energies between hand-thrown spears and spearthrowers are evidenced, and skill emerges as a significant factor in successful use. The results show that distance hunting was likely within the repertoire of hunting strategies of Neanderthals, and the resulting behavioural flexibility closely mirrors that of our own species.