As It Happens

Neanderthal spears could be used to kill prey from 20 metres away, study finds

Professional javelin throwers tested replicas of 300,000-year-old wooden hunting spears in study

January 28, 2019

Reconstructions of a Neanderthal man and woman are shown at the Neanderthal museum in Mettmann, Germany. (Martin Meissner/Associated Press)
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Neanderthals were able take down large prey from up to 20 metres away using their cleverly crafted throwing spears, according to a new study led by University College London archeologist Annemieke Milks.  6:12

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​Neanderthals were able take down large prey from up to 20 metres away using their cleverly crafted throwing spears, new research suggests.

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This flies in the face of previous assumptions that humanity's extinct ancient cousins — long maligned as brutish and unevolved — hunted exclusively with inferior, short-range weapons.

We have underestimated Neanderthals over a long period of time, and we're really starting to see changes in that. - Annemieke Milks, University College London archeologist 

"We wanted to test whether or not that was true," University College London archeologist Annemieke Milks told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"In general, we have underestimated Neanderthals over a long period of time, and we're really starting to see changes in that."

The findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

A sophisticated design

The researchers already had a hunch that there was more to ​Neanderthal spears than meets the eye, Milks said. 

First of all, some of them appeared to be designed specifically with aerodynamics in mind — long and pointed at both ends so they'll glide in the air, and tapered on one end for balance.

The design of the Schöningen spear indicates it may have been used as a long-range weapon, say archaeologists at University College London. (P. Pfarr/NLD)

"They're crafted in such a way that the thickest part is near the front, which shows that they were designing them in such a way that has the right balance features," Milks said. 

"So it shows a sort of sophistication in design."

Professional javelin throwers 

To test their theory, the researchers armed professional javelin throwers with replicas of 300,000-year-old ​Neanderthal spears.

Previous research used untrained people to throw the weapons, Milks said — not a good substitute for strong and highly-skilled ancient hunters. 

A javelin thrower tries to hit a target using a replica of a Neanderthal hunting spear. (University College London )

The athletes were able to accurately hit targets from between 15 and 20 metres away using replicas of wooden throwing spears from the Palaeolithic Age that were excavated between 1994 and 1999 in Schöningen, Germany.

Evidence from dig sites shows Neanderthals hunted medium to large game like deer, horses, reindeer and even bears and mammoth. 

"We don't know for sure whether they were hunting those using the spears as throwing spears or as thrusting spears or, most likely, a combination of both of those," Milks said. 

"But we do know that they were hunting very successfully quite large animals, and the energy levels we found in the experiment, the kinetic energy, is enough to bring down a large animal."

An undeserved reputation 

The findings are just the latest in a growing body of research that casts a more favourable light on the long-lost species, including evidence that they created art, made jewelry and even practised advanced and effective health-care techniques.

"I think as archeologists we're starting to engage now in what underpins us needing to characterize another species as so very different. And I think, you know, that sets up a very complex question — why do we need to characterize the other as something that is less than us?" Milks said.

But science also suggests that Neanderthals aren't quite as "other" as we once believed. Not only do we share common ancestry, but we still have some Neanderthal in us today.

"If we take now the evidence that we interbred with Neanderthals and that a lot of us have Neanderthal DNA within our own DNA, we have to start seeing them as more human."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Zahraa Hmood.