Why modern javelin throwers hurled Neandertal spears at hay bales

Some extinct hominids didn’t just stab prey from a close distance, a study finds

javelin throw

THROWBACKS  Athletes, including the man shown here, heaved replicas of Neandertal wooden spears in trials suggesting that the implements could have been used for long-range hunting.

A. Milks

Archaeologist Annemieke Milks had convened a sporting event of prehistoric proportions.

The athletes: Six javelin throwers who approached the physical strength of Neandertals. The weapon: Two replicas of a 300,000-year-old wooden spear, one of nine ancient hunting tools discovered at Germany’s Schöningen coal mine (SN: 3/1/97, p. 134). The test: Could Neandertals, the likely makers of the Stone Age weapon, have hurled the spears at prey with any power, accuracy and distance? 

Many researchers have suspected that Neandertals or their ancestors snuck up on and stabbed prey with the pointed wooden rods. That idea aligns with a popular assumption that Stone Age Homo sapiens had a monopoly on hurling spears at prey. Yet bodies capable of accurate and powerful throwing may have emerged nearly 2 million years ago in Homo erectus (SN Online: 6/26/13). So why not Neandertals?

HAVE NO SPEAR Annemieke Milks holds pieces of a replica wooden spear that broke when javelin athletes tried to throw it for accuracy and distance. Another replica spear was used to complete the trials. A. Milks
Now data from high-speed video cameras at Milks’ unusual throw-off, held in January 2015 and reported online January 25 in Scientific Reports , suggest that Neandertals might have used the spears for long-range hunting. 

Athletes threw the two wooden spear replicas a total of 102 times at bales of hay, hitting bales five meters away 58 percent of the time. That figure fell to 25 percent for throws from 10 meters and 15 meters, and 17 percent for 20-meter throws. No one could hit hay bales placed 25 meters away. The results are the first measurements of the Schöningen projectiles’ flight characteristics when hurled at a target.

“Being very competitive, [the athletes] were disappointed at their performance,” says Milks, of University College London. “But they found it exciting to think that some form of their sport had existed for so long.”

Javelin athletes with five years of experience performed best, grazing or penetrating a hay bale on 33 percent of their throws. The most experienced javelin athlete threw a replica spear farther than his peers did when not aiming at a target, just over 31 meters.

Missing the target wasn’t so surprising: Athletes are trained only to heave a javelin as far as possible. But they quickly adapted during the sporting event, starting to throw spears with less power to gain more accuracy, Milks says. More importantly, Milks’ test provided a crucial piece of support for long-range hunting by Neandertals. It showed that there was no substantial loss in a spear’s speed or physical momentum between its release from an athlete’s hand and impact with a target. That is, the spears were built to fly.

The only direct fossil evidence of Neandertal hunting points to closeup attacks on fallow deer. Even so, perhaps for meat-seeking Neandertals “it was not all close encounters with thrusting spears,” says biological anthropologist Neil Roach of Harvard University. But the low hit rates of even experienced javelin throwers leave paleontologist Steven Churchill of Duke University doubtful that hurled Schöningen spears could have killed or seriously injured prey.

Milks plans to see if spear-throwing hunters in some modern foraging groups, who have a lot of experience hitting targets, heave her replica weapons more deftly than javelin athletes did. Far from the world of track and field, she expects to record some deadeye flings.  

Editor’s note: This story was updated February 8, 2019, to correct that javelin athletes with five years of experience, not the most experienced athlete, performed best in the experiment.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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