On a very cold January morning, in an athletic field in central England, Annemieke Milks watched as six javelin-throwers hurled a pair of wooden spears. Their target was a hay bale, “meant to approximate the kill zone of a large animal, like a horse,” says Milks, an archaeologist at University College London. And their spears were replicas of the oldest complete hunting weapons ever found—a set of 300,000-year-old, six-and-a-half-foot sticks found in a mine at Schöningen, Germany.
The athletes managed to throw their replicas over distances of 65 feet. That’s a far cry from modern javelin feats—the world record for men, set in 1996, is 323.1 feet. But it’s twice what many scientists thought that primitive spears were capable of. It suggests that, contrary to popular belief, early spear-makers—Neanderthals, or perhaps other ancient species like Homo heidelbergensis—could probably have hunted their prey from afar.
“This experiment convincingly shows that in the hands of skilled users, spears are capable of killing at greater distances than previously thought,” says Jayne Wilkins, an archaeologist at the University of Cape Town. “This matters because it challenges a long-held idea” about the evolution of human weaponry.
It’s abundantly clear that Neanderthals and other early hominins were capable hunters who made and used spears. But many researchers have argued that such weapons were too heavy and clunky to be thrown quickly or accurately, and could only be thrust into prey from close range. “The general consensus has been that they were limited to ranges of 10 meters,” or about 32 feet, Milks says.
According to this view, long-distance kills became possible only when modern humans invented specialized tools like spear-throwers, atlatls, or bows. Those superior weapons gave their bearers—our ancestors—an advantage over other hominin species, allowing them to safely bring down dangerous game that Neanderthals were forced to engage at close quarters. Perhaps that partly explains why the latter went extinct, while modern humans thrived.
But to Milks, this narrative always had a glaring problem. “We don’t have good data on how hand-delivered spears performed, so we can’t make a valid comparison,” she says. “The 10-meter distance was repeated over and over again, but not backed up with much evidence.” It came from an influential ethnographic review that considered the spear-throwing skills of many modern populations, but didn’t include adept groups such as the Tasmanian and Tiwi peoples of Australia. And it was bolstered by studies and anecdotal reports in which spears were thrown by anthropologists—hardly a decent stand-in for a skilled Neanderthal hunter.
For example, John Shea, an archaeologist at Stony Brook University, told me that he regularly takes his students into an athletic field and asks them to throw replica Schöningen spears at him. “If they hit me, I pledge to give them $20,” he said. “I’ve been doing this ‘experiment’ for 25 years, and I’ve neither got so much as a scratch on me nor parted with any cash. The spears come sailing in so low and slow I can usually just step sideways out of the way, bat them away with a stick, or if I am feeling really cocky, catch them in midair.”
A German sport scientist and javelin-thrower named Hermann Rieder had more success: In a small study, he managed to hit targets from around 16 feet away and suggested that the spears were useful weapons at longer distances. (A Wikipedia entry that cites his study and claims that “athletes could throw replicas up to 70 meters” is almost certainly wrong.)
To get more thorough data, Milks asked Owen O’Donnell, an expert in reconstructing ancient technology, to create the best possible replicas. He made two from spruce—the same wood as in the Schöningen spears. He built them to the same weight—1.67 and 1.76 pounds, respectively. And he finished them with stone tools to give them an authentic texture.
“I’ve been asked a lot if I threw in my own experiments,” Milks says. “But that wouldn’t tell us anything, other than that I’m a bad thrower.” Instead, she gave the spears to six trained javelin-throwers, whom she filmed with high-speed cameras. The participants hurled the spears both far and fast. It’s sometimes said that heavy spears would slow mid-flight and hit their targets with dull thuds. But Milks found that the replicas slowed very little, and landed with a kinetic wallop comparable to projectiles launched by bows or spear-throwing tools.
But Steve Churchill, an anthropologist from Duke University, notes that the javelin-throwers only hit their target a quarter of the time, and less so at the farthest distances. He’s also unclear as to how many of those “hits” would have been strong enough to, say, penetrate an animal’s hide. In his own experience (and he freely admits that he’s not a trained thrower), Schöningen replicas wobble a lot and tend to strike targets at glancing angles. They might fly far, in other words, but do they fly true? “This is a very good study,” he says, but “I don’t see a lot here to convince me that the Schöningen spears were effective long-range weapons.”
Milks counters that professional javelin-throwers go for distance, and aren’t trained to hit targets. Despite that, some of them clearly got the sense that the heavy spears behave unusually, vibrating along their axis and flexing on impact. The more experienced athletes compensated for this by putting spin on the spears. “That brought home how important it is to use skilled throwers,” Milks says. “What I really want to do now is to go to hunter-forager groups and have them show us what these spears are capable of. They use spears from age 6, which is something I can’t replicate with javelin athletes.”
“There’s also a hypothesis that these spears required a lot of training, and a big robust body to use them properly,” she adds. Spear-throwers and bows may have given their users an edge not because they launched projectiles farther or faster, but because they could be picked up more easily, by more members of a group. As technology, they weren’t inherently superior, just more user-friendly. “That’s an idea that’s worth going forward with,” Milks says.
This isn’t to say that Neanderthals would have always thrown their spears. Last year, the archaeologist Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser analyzed Neanderthal-inflicted wounds on the fossil remains of two deer; after a whirlwind forensic analysis, she concluded that the animals were killed by spears thrust from below, not thrown from above. Neanderthals, she told me, hunted cattle in their prime, hibernating cave bears, and entire herds of horses or reindeer. “That these very different prey species, living in very different environments, necessitated very high flexibility in hunting tactics is a given,” she said.
Indeed, the Schöningen finds attest to that flexibility. Some spears could have been thrown, but others had kinks in them and were tapered only at one end. “That wasn’t a throwing spear,” Milks says. “It looks like [Neanderthals] had a collection of different technology at that site.”
The weapons are only half the story, too. There’s also the matter of their wielders, and some researchers have argued that Neanderthals were anatomically incapable of a strong throw. Milks believes that the “evidence for that is quite weak,” although she admits that her study of human javelin-throwers says nothing about the throwing arm of Neanderthals.
Despite that, experiments like hers are very welcome, says Katerina Harvati of the University of Tubingen. “It is really essential to understanding the behavior of Neanderthals and other Pleistocene ancestors, and to accurately interpreting archaeological findings such as the extremely rare spears from Schöningen. This study goes a long way to clarifying how those spears may have been used.”
Last year, Harvati and her colleagues busted another common misperception about Neanderthals: that they were especially prone to traumatic head injuries, perhaps because of their proclivity for close-range hunts. In fact, they were no more likely to get bonked on the head than contemporaneous humans. “Studies like these,” Jayne Wilkins says, “add to a mounting body of evidence against the old-fashioned idea that Neanderthals had only subhuman capacities, employed ineffective technologies, and were continuously struggling for survival.”