A team of archaeologists analyzed injuries to the skeletons of two deer and then attacked dear pelvises with sensor-equipped wooden spears to replicate the wounds. The result is a rare insight into how Neanderthal hunters made a living: thrusting short wooden spears at their prey, probably in well-coordinated group ambushes.
How did Neanderthals hunt?
Animal bones at several Neanderthal sites bear the telltale marks of butchery, but there’s little evidence of how, exactly, Neanderthals brought down their prey.
“We have hardly any evidence for weaponry before 40,000 years ago. The only obvious evidence so far—and even here not all archaeologists agree—are wooden spears or lances known from three sites only. Considering that hominins probably started hunting as early as 1.8 Mio years ago, evidence is meager,” Johannes Gutenberg–University Mainz archaeologist Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser told Ars Technica.
Archaeologists found the pointed tip of a 400,000-year-old wooden staff at a site in Clacton, England, once inhabited by Neanderthals’ earlier relatives, , and several sharpened wooden sticks turned up at a 300,000-year-old site in Schöningen, Germany. But archaeologists aren’t sure exactly how Neanderthals and would have used their early weapons or how their approach would have compared to early tactics.
Some modern hunter-gatherers still wield very similar wooden spears, which they either thrust or throw at their prey, depending on the terrain and the situation. Archaeologists are fairly sure that’s what early were doing, too. Understanding more about how Neanderthals hunted—not just the weapons they used, but their techniques and tactics—could help us better understand how competition for food and territory played out when humans and Neanderthals met.
“If Neanderthals were using both thrusting and throwing spears, the differences between their hunting tactics may not have been as great as if Neanderthals were only hunting using contact weapons,” University College London archaeologist Annemieke Milks told Ars. “Exactly how the weapons of Neanderthals and contemporaneous compare is a lively area of research.”
Wood doesn’t tend to preserve well, so we have precious few examples of wooden tools and weapons from earlier than 100,000 years ago. They certainly don’t provide the kind of prehistoric “smoking gun” that stone and bone projectile points sometimes provide, with a point still lodged between the ribs of a long-dead animal. So far, archaeologists don’t even have many good examples of animal skeletons with spear-inflicted damage, which would let them reconstruct the angle and force of the blow and the shape of the weapon that dealt it.
In fact, some archaeologists still debate whether those pointed sticks were used for hunting or just driving other scavengers away from potentially tasty carcasses.
At the Neumark-Nord site in Germany, Neanderthals 120,000 years ago hunted along the shores of a lake surrounded by dense forest. It’s a tough environment to make a living in, even for modern hunter-gatherers. Here, archaeologists found two textbook examples of hunting-spear trauma. A fallow deer vertebra bore a circular wound from what Gaudzinski-Windheuser and her colleagues described as “a well-placed lethal injury” to the deer’s neck, not far from the trachea—probably from a spear thrust.
A pelvic bone from another fallow deer had a circular hole punched through the thinnest part of the bone, toward the front and close to the spine. The bone hadn’t begun to heal, so the injury, although likely not fatal in its own right, probably happened in the moments before death.
In micro-CT images, Gaudzinski-Windheuser and her colleagues could see that the wound had a tapered shape, wider on the outer face of the bone where the spear had entered. This pushed bone fragments inward, but things were narrower on the inner surface where the spear tip had come out the other side and pushed bone fragments outward. Such a clear injury is a rare find, and it offered Gaudzinski-Windheuser and her colleagues a chance to analyze Neanderthal hunting methods in detail.
Archaeologists have a certain set of skills
“We succeeded in reproducing the specific morphology of the perforation at the exact anatomical location using ballistic experiments,” they wrote. That’s a very clinical way of saying that three archaeologists took turns thrusting wooden-tipped spears at deer bones mounted in blocks of ballistic gel.
“Since the 1980s, when experimental archaeology came into fashion, archaeologists started international competitions using prehistoric weaponry. My colleague Dr. Martin Street has a long experience practicing, is very skilled, and even won several of these competitions,” Gaudzinski-Windheuser told Ars. The other two participants had brown and black belts in Kung-Fu and “practiced minimally twice per week for 90 minutes.”
Gaudzinski-Windheuser and her colleagues rigged up an aluminum spear shaft with some sensors and a tip made of beech wood, the closest they could get to the yew favored by Neanderthals (yew is now protected in Germany). They acquired red deer pelvic bones and scapulae from hunters, mounted them in blocks of ballistic gel, and then, one imagines, they must have set up a very careful ambush.
“The ballistics work is experimental archaeology at its best, connecting the physics of impact to fracture patterns of bone,” wrote Milks in a paper commenting on the study.
It turned out that the wooden spear tips could only perforate the bone at its thinnest point—exactly where the deer from Neumark-Nord had been wounded. And the hunters had to thrust with just the right amount of force; a high-velocity impact would shatter the pelvic bone, but a low-velocity impact wouldn’t leave a mark at all. (That explains why archaeologists see so few obvious signs of hunting injuries in animal skeletons from Neanderthal sites.) The sweet spot for replicating the ancient injury turned out to be between 3.6 and 4.5 m/s, Gaudzinski-Windheuser told Ars. A thrown spear, in contrast, could reach velocities of up to 15-25 m/s.
And micro-CT scans of the experimentally damaged bones showed exactly the same pattern of entry and exit wounds as the ancient bone. That confirmed that the original wound was the product of a pointed wooden spear tip, and the impact angle suggested a thrust, not a throw. Based on Gaudzinski-Windheuser and her colleagues’ experiments, the 120,000-year-old hunter must have been standing below and slightly behind the deer when he struck, or else he was standing above a deer already lying on the ground.
The thrust of the argument
The study proves that, at least at Neumark-Nord, Neanderthals were definitely hunting, not just scavenging. They brought down their prey in thrusting attacks with short wooden spears, which would have been a risky business, requiring hunters to close with their prey and put themselves in range of antlers, horns, or hooves. And that kind of hunting required careful selection of terrain and lots of coordination among the hunters. When modern hunter-gatherers use their spears as thrusting, rather than thrown, weapons, it’s usually because they’ve chosen to ambush their prey or drive it into swamps or bodies of water. The lakes at Neumark-Nord would have offered a perfect opportunity for that sort of tactic.
“For a large part of human prehistory, short-distance weapons such as thrusting spears may have been the default hunting tool,” wrote Gaudzinski-Windheuser and her colleagues.
On the other hand, throwing a short wooden spear would let hunters strike at prey from a range of 6-8 meters, even without the spearthrowers or atlatls that would revolutionize hunting almost 90,000 years later. But that would require enough open ground for a clear shot, a situation which may have been difficult to come by in the forests around Neumark-Nord.
Gaudzinski-Windheuser and her colleagues’ experiments don’t rule out the idea that, when the situation called for it, Neanderthals threw their spears with lethal effect. In fact, Milks argues that there’s not enough evidence to tell whether the fatal wound on the second deer’s vertebra was the product of a throw or a thrust. That means that Neanderthal hunting tactics were probably at least as flexible as ’.
More experiments could help archaeologists better understand how to recognize damage inflicted by thrown wooden spears compared with spear thrusts.