'Clever and Capable' Neanderthals Could Use Spears to Hunt From a Distance

Archeologists believe Neanderthals hunted using spears that could kill from a distance, according to a study questioning the myth that they were bumbling brutes.

The researchers based their study published in the journal Scientific Reports on the Schöningen spears. Discovered in a lignite mine in the northern German town of Schöningen, Lower Saxony, the wooden spears are the oldest known weapons preserved in their entirety. Dating back to the Palaeolithic Age some 300,000 years ago, around 16,000 bones were found alongside the objects.

Creating such devices required leaps forward in cognition for our ancestral cousins, as well as communication and social skills, the authors wrote.

"The ability to design a technology that is capable of hunting prey from a distance, rather than at contact, is a significant step in the human evolutionary trajectory," Dr. Annemieke Milks who led the study at the University College London Institute of Archaeology, told Newsweek.

Past research indicated that Neanderthals, who lived in Europe and southwest and central Asia between 40,000 to 400,000 years ago and survived on a diet of meat, shellfish, and vegetation, were only able to hunt with handheld implements if they were close to their prey.

To investigate this idea, the team at University College London fashioned two replica spears weighing 760g and 800g, respectively, out of wood. First, they whittled the material down with metal tools. Then, they finished them off with stone implements so the weapons would resemble that used by the homo neanderthalensis.

A group of six javelin athletes was tasked with throwing replicas of these ancient wooden weapons in order to estimate how Neanderthals used them, and how far they could travel.

"Our study shows that distance hunting was likely within the repertoire of hunting strategies of Neanderthals, and that behavioural flexibility closely mirrors that of our own species," Milks commented in a statement: "This is yet further evidence narrowing the gap between Neanderthals and modern humans."

The athletes, recruited to match the power of our Paleolithic ancestors, were able to throw the spears 20m: double what past research has suggested. The force exerted would be enough to kill, the authors of the study concluded.

While existing studies have suggested the spears were too heavy to throw relatively long distances, the archeologists surmised Neanderthals would have launched the devices at a speed combatting this potential issue.

"We were excited to learn about the significant impact velocities of these spears, and the fact that overall they do not rapidly lose velocity in flight," Milks told Newsweek.

Co-author Dr. Matt Pope explained in a statement that our understanding of the sorts of weapons our ancestors used to hunt, and their role, are poorly established.

"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," he said.

Milks argued the study is therefore important as "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."

"It contributes to revised views of Neanderthals as our clever and capable cousins."

However, as the study javelin "athletes are not perfect proxies of Middle Pleistocene hunters," the study is somewhat limited, Milks told Newsweek. "We would like to see future studies extend this work with skilled throwers who also have experience with hunting."

This research indicating Neanderthals were more sophisticated than previously thought comes after a paper published in the journal Science Advances suggesting they were dexterous.

By scanning the skeletons of six Neanderthals, German researchers concluded they could perform precision grips needed to carry out tasks such as crafting tools and using stone implements.

This article has been updated with comment from Annemieke Milks.

A model representing a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory, in Eyzies-de-Tayac, Dordogne. Archaeologists believe they used spears which could kill at a distance. PIERRE ANDRIEU/AFP/Getty Images

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