Neanderthals had the brains to build long-distance weapons

Neanderthal super-spears that could kill animals from 65ft away reveal how ancient human ancestors were more advanced than thought

  • Scientists thought neanderthal’s lacked the ability to create long-range weapons
  • Fragment of surviving spear was used to create full-size replicas for study 
  • Javelin throwers managed to hurl the wooden spears up to 65 feet (20 metres) 
  • They also had sufficient force to be able to kill an animal, experts discovered  
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Neanderthal spears were used to kill prey from up to 65 feet (20 metres) away, scientists have found. 

It was previously thought the ancient human ancestors did not have the necessary technology or skill to create refined weapons for long-range use. 

Research combined a fragment of a surviving spear with javelin throwing athletes and found the projectiles were more efficient than previously thought. 

Experts had assumed Neanderthals used their crude wooden spears for stabbing and lunging instead of throwing.   

The new study paints a very different picture of their abilities and reveals the so-called ‘Schoningen’ spears were aerodynamic missiles used to kill prehistoric prey. 

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Research has combined a fragment of a surviving spear found in Clacton-on-Sea (pictured) with javelin throwing athletes and found the projectiles were more efficient than previously thought

Using accurate replicas of Neanderthal spears dating back 300,000 years, the javelin throwers managed to hit a target up to 65 feet (20 metres) away.

This was double the distance scientists had believed the ‘Schoningen’ spears could be thrown.

In addition, the spears slammed into the target with sufficient force to kill prey.

Lead researcher Dr Annemieke Milks, from University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, said: ‘This study is important because it adds to a growing body of evidence that Neanderthals were technologically savvy and had the ability to hunt big game through a variety of hunting strategies, not just risky close encounters.

‘It contributes to revised views of Neanderthals as our clever and capable cousins.’ 

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Neanderthals vanished from Europe around 40,000 years ago after co-existing with the ancestors of modern humans for several millennia.

It used to be thought that they were simply too stupid to compete with modern humans.

However recent finds have shown that Neanderthals were sophisticated tool and weapon makers.

The Schoningen spears, the oldest weapons in the archaeological record, are a set of 10 wooden throwing spears discovered in Germany in the 1990s


A whole replica of the spear from which the 400,000 year old spear fragment discovered in Clacton-on-Sea came from


 Using accurate replicas of Neanderthal spears dating back 300,000 years, the javelin throwers managed to hit a target up to 65 feet (20 metres) away (pictured)

WHO WERE THE NEANDERTHALS?

The Neanderthals were a close human ancestor that mysteriously died out around 50,000 years ago.

The species lived in Africa with early humans for hundreds of millennia before moving across to Europe around 500,000 years ago.

They were later joined by humans taking the same journey some time in the past 100,000 years. 


The Neanderthals were a cousin species of humans but not a direct ancestor – the two species split from a common ancestor –  that perished around 50,000 years ago. Pictured is a Neanderthal museum exhibit

These were the original ‘cavemen’, historically thought to be dim-witted and brutish compared to modern humans.

In recent years though, and especially over the last decade, it has become increasingly apparent we’ve been selling Neanderthals short.

A growing body of evidence points to a more sophisticated and multi-talented kind of ‘caveman’ than anyone thought possible.

It now seems likely that Neanderthals buried their dead with the concept of an afterlife in mind.

Additionally, their diets and behaviour were surprisingly flexible.

They used body art such as pigments and beads, and they were the very first artists, with Neanderthal cave art (and symbolism) in Spain apparently predating the earliest modern human art by some 20,000 years.

For the study, two replicas were crafted from Norwegian spruce trees, one weighing 760 grams (1.67lb) and the other 800 grams (1.76lb).

Their weight had previously led scientists to believe they could not be thrown with much speed.

But the six javelin athletes recruited for the experiment were able to hurl the spears accurately over long distances with deadly force.

Co-author Dr Matt Pope, also from University College London, said: ‘The emergence of weaponry, technology designed to kill, is a critical but poorly established threshold in human evolution.

‘We have forever relied on tools and have extended our capabilities through technical innovation.

‘Understanding when we first developed the capabilities to kill at distance is therefore a dark, but important moment in our story.’

The research is published in the journal Scientific Reports.


Experts had assumed that Neanderthals (pictured) used their crude wooden spears for stabbing and lunging instead of throwing. It was previously thought the ancient human ancestors did not have the technology or skill to create refined weapons for long-range use

WHEN DID HUMAN ANCESTORS FIRST EMERGE?

The timeline of human evolution can be traced back millions of years. Experts estimate that the family tree goes as such:

55 million years ago – First primitive primates evolve

15 million years ago – Hominidae (great apes) evolve from the ancestors of the gibbon

7 million years ago – First gorillas evolve. Later, chimp and human lineages diverge


A recreation of a Neanderthal man is pictured 

5.5 million years ago – Ardipithecus, early ‘proto-human’ shares traits with chimps and gorillas

4 million years ago – Ape like early humans, the Australopithecines appeared. They had brains no larger than a chimpanzee’s but other more human like features 

3.9-2.9 million years ago – Australoipithecus afarensis lived in Africa.  

2.7 million years ago – Paranthropus, lived in woods and had massive jaws for chewing  

2.6 million years ago – Hand axes become the first major technological innovation 

2.3 million years ago – Homo habilis first thought to have appeared in Africa

1.85 million years ago – First ‘modern’ hand emerges 

1.8 million years ago – Homo ergaster begins to appear in fossil record 

800,000 years ago – Early humans control fire and create hearths. Brain size increases rapidly

400,000 years ago – Neanderthals first begin to appear and spread across Europe and Asia

300,000 to 200,000 years ago – Homo sapiens – modern humans – appear in Africa

50,000 to 40,000 years ago – Modern humans reach Europe 

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