To the average individual, a simple wooden spear is an unwieldy close-range weapon. But in the hands of experts—namely six javelin athletes asked to mirror the movements of Neanderthal hunters—a spear can transform into a deadly projectile, enabling users to hit targets from as far as 65 feet away.
This finding is the latest contribution to a growing body of literature surrounding humans’ ancient, and often unfairly maligned, ancestor. As Matthew Taub writes for Atlas Obscura, archaeologists from University College London recruited the athletes in question to investigate the effectiveness of so-called “Schöningen spears,” or 300,000-year-old Neanderthal weapons discovered in a German mine during the mid- to late-1990s.
These simple wooden tools have helped researchers debunk the notion that Neanderthals were scavengers rather than hunters, but as lead author Annemieke Milks explains for the Conversation, the new Scientific Reports study is the first to delve into the mechanics of the early weapons, which were once believed to be limited to close-range stabbing. Now, Newsweek’s Kashmira Gander notes, archaeologists posit that the tools were far more versatile, allowing Neanderthals to kill from twice the distance previously proposed.
For the experiment, Milks and her colleagues painstakingly crafted two replicas of the Schöningen spears. Using wood from Norwegian spruce trees grown in the United Kingdom, the researchers first whittled down the material with metal tools and then added finishing touches with stone implements. One spear weighed 1.67 pounds, according to Forbes’ Fiona McMillan, and the other weighed 1.76 pounds. Comparatively, Atlas Obscura’s Taub reports, an NFL football weighs around .88 pounds.
Javelin throwers chosen for their ability to dispatch spears at speeds comparable to Neanderthal hunters managed to hit hay bales situated up to 65 feet, away, exerting enough force to “kill” the potential horse-sized prey represented by these makeshift targets.
Crucially, Peter Hess points out for Inverse, participants didn’t have a 100 percent success rate: When the target was located 32.8 feet, away, athletes hit it 25 percent of the time. At 49.2 feet away and 65 feet away, this percentage dropped to 17 percent.
Although these numbers may seem low, it’s important to note that Neanderthals likely hunted in packs, meaning the chances of at least one spear hitting the target were relatively high. And those weapons that met their targets did so with deadly efficacy, penetrating flesh, or in this case hay, with surprising power.
It’s true, of course, that javelin throwers are not exact proxies for Neanderthals. But, Milks tells BBC News’ Rebecca Morelle, “Previously we relied on unskilled people to thrust or throw these weapons in experimental work, so our ideas about how they functioned are based on unskilled use."
Speaking with History.com’s Becky Little, Milks adds that the new findings speak to the strength of the early spears’ overall design. Neanderthals may not have thrown their weapons as far or as forcefully as the contemporary athletes, but the fact that such results can be derived from the replica spears indicates that skilled, trained members of the community easily could have done so.
Milks continues, “[It’s important] not to underestimate the humans that made these technologies and spent, probably, their childhoods and lives gaining expertise and the fitness, in this case, necessary to use these technologies.”
Writing for the Conversation, Milks outlines the the manifold implications of the new analysis. Not only does the survey counter the conception of hand-thrown spears as close-distance weapons, but it also testifies to the Neanderthals’ surprisingly advanced technological innovation.
“The emergence of weaponry—technology designed to kill—is a critical but poorly established threshold in human evolution,” study co-author Matt Pope says in a statement. “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."