Neanderthals were represented as lower cousins of modern humans, but a new study by UCL archeologists shows for the first time that they are producing weapons advanced enough to kill remotely.
The study, published in Scientific reports, explores copies of Copenhagen's 300,000-year-old copies, the oldest weapon described in archaeological records, to determine whether the cops can use them to hit the target at a distance.
Dr Annemieke Milks, who led the study, said: "This research is important because it adds more and more evidence that Neanderthals were technologically understood and had the ability to hunt large game through different types of hunting strategies, and not just risky close encounters, which contributes to the reconsiderated views of Neanderthals as our clever and capable cousins.
Research shows that wooden copies would allow Neanderthals to use them as a weapon and to kill off at a distance. This is a significant finding, given that previous studies suggesting that Neanderthals can only hunt and kill their prey within close proximity.
Copies of the Schöningen are a set of ten wooden copies of the Paleolithic era that were excavated between 1994 and 1999 in an open pit in Schöningen, Germany, together with approximately 16,000 animal bones.
Copies of Schöningen are the oldest fully-hunted hunting weapons of prehistoric Europe. Besides Schöningen, a fragment of a copy of Clacton-on-Sea, England dating back 400,000 years ago, can be found at the Natural History Museum in London.
The study was conducted with six copy riders who were hired to verify that the copies could be used to hit the target remotely. The athletes were selected for the survey because they had the ability to throw at high speed, matching the Neanderthal hunter's abilities.
Owen O'Donnell, a graduate of the UCL Institute of Archeology, makes copies of the specimen by hand using metallic tools. They are made from Norway spruce trees grown in Kent, UK. The surface was manipulated at the last stage with stone tools, creating a surface that exactly reproduces that of the pleistocene wood spear. Two copies weighing 760g and 800g were used, matching the ethnographic records of wooden copies.
Athletes have shown that the target can be hit at up to 20 meters and with a significant impact that would lead to a slaughter. This is a double the distance that scientists thought the spears could be thrown, indicating that Neanderthals have technological capabilities to hunt both at a distance and at a near distance.
The weight of Schöningen spears previously led scientists to believe they would struggle to travel at a considerable speed. The study, however, shows that the balance of weight and speed at which athletes can throw them produces enough kinetic energy to hit and kill the target.
Dr. Matt Pope (UCL Institute of Archeology), co-author of the article, said: "The emergence of weapons – a technology designed to kill – is a critical, but poorly established threshold in human evolution.
"We have always relied on tools and expanded our capabilities through technical innovation, so understanding when we first developed the possibilities of killing off is a dark but important moment in our history."
Dr. Milks concluded, "Our study shows that off-hunting is probably the repertoire of Neanderthal hunting strategies, and that behavioral flexibility reflects exactly that of our own species.
The Neanderthals hunted in strips, and the spears approached closely: study
Anemike Milks, David Parker, and Matt Pope. "Pleistocene Out-of-Ball Ballistic Discard Ballistics: Data from Experimental Results and Consequences for Human Evolution" Scientific reports, Friday, January 25, 2019