Some extinct hominids didn’t just stab prey from a close distance, a study finds
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?
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.
A. Milks, D. Parker and M. Pope. External ballistics of Pleistocene hand-thrown spears: experimental performance data and implications for human evolution. Scientific Reports. Published online January 25, 2019. doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-37904-w.