For the first time, scientists have found evidence that suggests Neanderthals made spears advanced enough to kill at a distance.
The discovery "means that Neanderthals likely had greater flexibility for their technologies and hunting strategies than we often envision," said lead author Dr Annemieke Milks, from the UCL Institute of Archaeology, to IFLScience.
For the study, published in Scientific Reports, the team gave javelin athletes replicas of 300,000-year-old Schöningen spears – a set of spears from the Palaeolithic Age that are among the oldest wooden weapons reported in the archaeological record. They were found in Schöningen, Germany, along with thousands of animal bones.
To make replicas of the spears, Owen O’Donnell hand-crafted them using metal tools and wood sourced from Norwegian spruce trees in Kent, UK. He finalized their surface with stone tools that, according to the team, accurately replicated the Pleistocene weapons, each weighing around 800 grams (28 ounces) like those in the ethnographic records.
Six javelin athletes were then tested on their ability to use these replicas to strike a target at a distance. “Javelin athletes were chosen for the study because they had the skill to throw at high velocity, matching the capability of a Neanderthal hunter," said Milks in a statement.
The athletes were able to spear a target at a distance of up to 20 meters (65 feet) and with enough impact to kill prey. This is twice the distance scientists previously thought hunting spears could be thrown.
"Distance hunting, even from medium distances such as those found in our study, enables greater safety, and also avoids alerting prey to a hunter's presence," Milks told IFLScience.
Of course, the limitation here is assuming that a javelin athlete nowadays is comparable to a Neanderthal hunter. However, that is often the nature of these studies – without an actual Neanderthal to throw the spear, scientists have to build suggestive clues, rather than direct evidence.
"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,” said Milks. "It contributes to revised views of Neanderthals as our clever and capable cousins."
Intriguingly, a study in 2014 found damage on a Neanderthal’s left arm bone similar to the trauma one would get from repeated throwing or thrusting. All this adds to the body of evidence that Neanderthals constructed spears to hunt, possibly at a distance.
”The emergence of weaponry – technology designed to kill – is a critical but poorly established threshold in human evolution,” said co-author Dr Matt Pope.
"We have forever relied on tools and have extended our capabilities through technical innovation. Understanding when we first developed the capabilities to kill at distance is therefore a dark, but important moment in our story."