Human evolution Intelligent Design

Neanderthals were way smarter hunters than we used to think

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Spear fragment from 400,000 years ago/
Annemieke Milks (UCL)

From ScienceDaily:

Neanderthals have been imagined as the inferior cousins of modern humans, but a new study by archaeologists at UCL reveals for the first time that they produced weaponry advanced enough to kill at a distance.

The study, published in Scientific Reports, examined the performance of replicas of the 300,000 year old Schöningen spears — the oldest weapons reported in archaeological records — to identify whether javelin throwers could use them to hit a target at distance…

The research shows that the wooden spears would have enabled Neanderthals to use them as weapons and kill at distance. It is a significant finding given that previous studies considered Neanderthals could only hunt and kill their prey at close range. Paper. (open access) – Annemieke Milks, David Parker, Matt Pope. External ballistics of Pleistocene hand-thrown spears: experimental performance data and implications for human evolution. Scientific Reports, 2019; 9 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-37904-w More.

Since we’re here anyway, how did the researchers discover this? Safe bet, they weren’t out there throwing sharp objects at dump bears at dusk in Northern Ontario landfills:

We worked with a group of six club-level javelin athletes from the UK who threw replicas of a spear from the 300,000-year-old Neanderthal site of Schöningen in Germany at targets set at different distances. We recorded when they hit and missed the target, and filmed release and impacts with high-speed video cameras. This allowed us to evaluate accuracy and capture aspects of flight and impact that have never been scientifically analysed.

The results show that Neanderthals designed weapons that were capable of impacting a target with significant speed and energy from distances of up to 20 metres. This is surprising – archaeologists have typically viewed hand-thrown spears as close-distance weapons, limited to ten metres at most. This is an extremely close hunting distance and would severely limit the strategies that hunters could use. It would also make it extremely dangerous to hunt larger prey with aggressive behaviours, such as bison. Annemieke Milks, “Neanderthals: javelin athletes helped us show how effective they were at hunting with weapons” at The Conversation

Those Neanderthals now, they get smarter every time we run into them. Will the day come when people think it a social cachet to have Neanderthal ancestors?

Which reminds us:

You probably learned that a species is a group of individuals that can breed to produce fertile offspring, but this is just one of dozens of competing definitions. The lack of consensus on what a species is has big implications for how we think about the natural world and for our efforts to conserve it. But the problems go even deeper. Recent revelations about interbreeding between what some regard as separate species of ancient humans have left many of us wondering: who are “we”, who are “they” and are we actually all one and the same? In other words, how we define a species has become a question at the very heart of human identity. Perhaps it is time to rethink the whole concept.Colin Barras, “Human or hybrid? The big debate over what a species really is” at New Scientist

Hang onto that thought, Colin.

See also: Darwinian Evolution And Underestimating The Neanderthals

See also: Was Neanderthal man fully human? The role racism played in assessing the evidence

and

Neanderthal Man: The long-lost relative turns up again, this time with documents

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3 Replies to “Neanderthals were way smarter hunters than we used to think

  1. 1
    Belfast says:

    Australian Aborigenes used a multi-purpose thing called a woomera to throw spears. Effectively it doubles the length of the arm and the resultant force is more than doubled again. I am left wondering if anthropologists have found woomeras but failed to recognise what they were.perhaps not, it is hard to imagine that such assistance would be forgotten.

  2. 2
    LoneCycler says:

    The Woomera is an Aboriginal Atlatl and another example of convergent evolution in human history. Tools like this were developed in many different places by different peoples.

    The Schoningen spears were discovered twenty years ago and archaeologists have been arguing about them ever since. 7 of the 8 spears are made from spruce and they were clearly crafted to a specification. The spear points are not concentric to the long axis of the spear, as this would have used the soft center pith of the stem, the weakest part, to produce the point. Instead the point is worked from the harder outer layers of the stem. The spears are balanced just like modern javelins with most weight in the front third of the length and are designed for throwing.

    The original theory was that the site was a mass-kill hunting site where an entire herd of horses was slaughtered. That was debunked by examining the bones to find mature and non-mature horses with varying patterns of wear on teeth; not a mass-kill site but an accumulation over time at a favored hunting spot.

    The spears themselves had to have been submerged from the time they were dropped – how that theory was developed I don’t know – but it supposedly means the horses were killed while they were in the water and not on shore.

    Given the choice of spearing a horse to collect the meat while it’s on dry land or while its chest deep in water, I’ll take the second. Horses are dangerous on land but they aren’t able to move quickly while in the water. Neanderthals would have been smart to make that choice too.

    So criticism of the original idea does not diminish Neanderthal intelligence but that of the critics, who don’t seem to have hunting experience. Being able to kill at a distance is one thing that sets humans apart from the animals. A small group of Neanderthals armed with these spears would be able to take a horse, a deer or a bison, while it was in the water.

    As the experiment with reproduction spears and athletes showed there are often misses even after much training. The problem with using a throwing spear is once it’s thrown and you miss you have to go find it to try again. By that time the horse/deer/bison is over the horizon.

    So a Neanderthal carried several spears. A group of say, 6, carrying 5 spears each, would be able to spear a horse/deer/bison in the water many times. The spears that missed might not be collected depending on wind, water depth, celebration of the kill, etc. Maybe spears that missed were considered bad luck and simply left wherever they fell. (I’ve seen this done with golf clubs). The 8 spears found just happened to become preserved in mud after being abandoned and floating back to shore.

    It happened 300,000 years ago and I think my just so story is as good as any other.

  3. 3
    News says:

    LoneCycler at 2: “So criticism of the original idea does not diminish Neanderthal intelligence but that of the critics, who don’t seem to have hunting experience. Being able to kill at a distance is one thing that sets humans apart from the animals. A small group of Neanderthals armed with these spears would be able to take a horse, a deer or a bison, while it was in the water.”

    One guesses that many theorists hunt grocery store websites for orders of heat n’ serve food that they can pick up at the drivethrough. It would tend, over time, to change one’s view of how to provide for oneself.

    That is, they were not going to get kicked in the head by a grocery store associate anyway. The Neanderthal noew, he had to reckon with that possibility with regard to his food order. 😉

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