History Stories

Evidence gleaned from deer bones suggest Neanderthals moved in sneaky, coordinated attacks to spear prey at close range.

They have long been maligned with the image of knuckle-dragging, thick-skulled brutes—but more recent evidence tells another story. In recent years, studies have shown that Neanderthals produced art, mourned their dead and even used toothpicks to clean between their teeth, just like their Homo sapiens neighbors. Now research, released in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, adds another piece of evidence to the pile. It is believed, scientists say, that Neanderthals hunted collectively: they planned, cooperated and moved as a pack, armed with spears.

By analyzing the bones of two 120,000-year-old deer, scientists say they now understand how Neanderthals may have used these weapons to stalk and kill their prey. The bones of the animals are scored with cut marks, or “hunting lesions,” with at least one delivered from the impact of a wooden spear at low velocity.

According to Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, a researcher at Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz, Germany, Neanderthal hunters likely came right up to their prey, before thrusting their spears at them from below. “Such a confrontational way of hunting required careful planning and concealment,” she told AFP, “and close cooperation between individual hunters.”

The deer were found on the shores of a lake near Neumark-Nord, in Germany, surrounded by closed-canopy forests. There’s ample evidence that Neanderthals made this area their home for as much as 7,000 years, researchers say.

Neanderthal Hunting News

Estimated impact angle shown in relation to a standing fallow deer for the hunting lesion observed in the pelvis of an extinct fallow deer killed by Neanderthals on a lake shore close to current-day Halle, Germany. (Credit: Eduard Pop, MONREPOS Archaeological Research Centre and Museum for Human Behavioural Evolution, Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Leibniz-Researchinstitute for Archaeology)

It’s been more than two decades since the bones themselves were pulled from the ground. But only recently have they shed much light on how these long-dead animals were killed, thanks to new technology, including microscopic imaging and ballistic experiments. These techniques work a little like modern crime scene reconstruction, and are an important part of the burgeoning field of experimental archaeology.

It is now thought that the perforations in these bones came from direct impact from a weapon point. More specifically, it seems to have been a sharpened wooden point like a stake or spear. The spear tore right through the animal’s flesh, puncturing the bone. Shortly afterwards, the animal died from its wounds.

Neanderthals may not have exclusively used these weapons as tools to stab their prey, the study concluded. Modern foragers who use similar spears sometimes throw them from a short distance, or employ their sharp ends to drive prey into bodies of water, much like the Neumark-Nord lakes. Beneath the shady canopy of the nearby trees, Neanderthals likely lay in wait, armed and concealed from sight, before ambushing their unsuspecting prey in a highly coordinated attack.

What’s at least as interesting, and not easy to answer, is how Neanderthals cooperated in these attacks. They’re long believed to have been unable to use speech, perhaps explaining why Homo sapiens survived and Neanderthals did not. Yet discoveries such as these throw this assertion into question—or at least beg new questions about Neanderthals’ social behavior, cognition and how they decided when to wait, and when to attack.

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