History Stories

Our understanding of Neanderthals has shifted radically in the past decade. Once thought to be distinct from and far less intelligent than modern humans, Neanderthals have gotten their revenge with studies showing a.) they’re much more capable than we gave them credit for, and b.) many of us have Neanderthal DNA. In another blow to modern humans’ superiority complex, a new study suggests Neanderthals could hunt game at a distance just like Homo sapiens.

Throwing a spear at an animal from a distance has significant advantages over stabbing an animal with a spear at close range. It’s safer, it makes it easier to sneak up on an animal and it doesn’t require trapping the animal first. Previous archaeological evidence has shown that Neanderthals used wooden spears to stab elephants and deer at close range. Now, archaeologists say the design of some spears could’ve allowed Neanderthals to hunt game from a distance.

The spear fragment found from Milks team

The spear fragment found from Milks team

“The traditional view is that…our own species innovated these complex projectiles which include the atlatl, or spear-thrower,” says Annemieke Milks, an archaeologist affiliated with University College London’s Institute of Archaeology.

Milks is the lead author of a study in Scientific Reports that reconsiders the 300,000-year-old “Schöningen spears,” the oldest weapons ever found. When archaeologists discovered these ten wooden spears between 1994 and 1999 in Schöningen, Germany, they initially thought Neanderthals must have used them to stab at close range because they were too heavy to throw.

“One of the things we’ve been plagued with in understanding these early spears is that researchers have done a lot of the throwing themselves,” Milks says. But there’s “a real skills gap between what hunters in the past would’ve been doing, or even hunters today who use spears as throwing weapons, and what an anthropologist could do by throwing a spear.”

Instead of trying to throw versions of the spears themselves, Milks and her colleagues recruited six javelin athletes to throw replicas of the Schöningen spears. The researchers found the athletes could hit a target as far as 65 feet away and still land with sufficient impact to kill an animal. Milks points out that this doesn’t mean the Neanderthals were throwing the spears as far as these athletes. But it does show that the spears’ design gives them the capability to be thrown by a practiced hand.

Illustration of Neanderthal man sitting around fire holding lance-like weapon; circa 30,000 BC.  (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Neanderthal men sitting around a fire crafting spears.

“What the research shows us is the importance of skill when we’re assessing technology from the past, whatever period it’s from,” she says. “[It’s important] not to underestimate the humans that made these technologies and spent, probably, their childhoods and lives gaining expertise and the fitness, in this case, necessary to use these technologies.”

Indeed, a Neanderthal who grew up learning how to hunt with a throwing spear would probably be able to hurl it farther than an archaeologist who’d never tried it.

READ MORE: Neanderthals Developed Surprisingly Sophisticated Ways to Hunt

READ MORE: Early Humans Slept Around with More than Just Neanderthals

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