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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.
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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.