Forty thousand years after the disappearance, Neanderthals remained alive largely as the rebellion of our jokes. You know how it goes: they are non-intelligent, lethargic, incompetent – an uncomfortable chapter in our evolutionary history. Do not you?
No, really. The survey published today in Scientific reports gives another indication that our ancestors were much more advanced than we thought – even when it comes to violence, in a kingdom in which mankind can demand some unambiguous, if unhappy, authorities.
Archaeologists at University College London (UCL) have shown that the 300,000-year-old Shingingen Spears – the oldest stored hunting weapon ever found in Europe – could be used for hunting loot remotely, and not only in close proximity. When the spears were dug between 1994 and 1999, in the lignite mine in Schönning, Germany, they helped "really eradicate" the perception that Neanderthals are collectors instead of hunters, says Annemieek Milks, lead author of the new study. However, Milks noted in the conduct of his postgraduate research that there was a lack of data on hand-held buttons from that period. Researchers like her "should understand basic things about how these weapons worked." So she decided to do just that with the spear Shanning.
Using wood from Norwegian spruce trees brought up in Kent, England, the UCL Institute of Archeology, Owen O'Donnell built replicas of spears manually, weighing 760 and 800 grams. To ensure that the spear did not match only the historical specifications, but that they would handle the appropriate technique, the team ordered six spearmen to throw the spear at high speed to the hunters. Spearmakers were able to hit targets up to 20 meters, and with sufficient force to kill the potential prey. Prior to the experiment, scientists estimated that the spear could be thrown only halfway away. They are relatively large, after all NFL football teams, for comparison, weigh about 400 grams.
The findings reveal the technological sophistication of the Neanderthals and the chief – if it is a rather gloomy path in which they affect human civilization. "Understanding when we first developed the skills for killing a distance," co-author Matt Papa said in a press release, "is … a dark, but important moment in our story." However, these possibilities represent only one piece of the rather complex Neanderthal puzzle. Among the last 10 and 15 years, says Milks, the researchers had to radically re-examine the Neanderthals after evidence emerged that they explored the underground, created art, thought it symbolically, and made other advanced stone tools. But perhaps it should not have been so surprising: the Neanderthals were moving for over 300,000 years. "Understanding them as human kind," says Mills, "helps us understand their longevity".
Next, Milks hopes that this study can set the basis for comparing the early spears to later missiles, and that larger specimens of spears can illustrate the importance of variables such as the skill and size of the body in their handling. Until then, let's give the Neanderthals a break.