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Neanderthals used refined hunting techniques 120,000 years ago

Neanderthals used careful techniques to hunt their prey at close range. This is the conclusion of an international team of archaeologists, including researchers, in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution. Publication 25 June.

Leiden archaeologists Wil Roebroeks and Eduard Pop worked on this research. Pop describes the discovery as a milestone. 'It is an important step forwards in our understanding of Neanderthals. It shows how they must have caught their prey with a wooden spear and what hunting skills they possessed.’

Oldest hunting wounds

The international team examined wounds on skeletons of two large deer that were killed by Neanderthals an estimated 120,000 years ago. These are the oldest hunting wounds ever documented. The skeletons were found along the banks of a small lake, Neumark-Nord 1, near to present-day Halle in the east of Germany.

One of the bones found - the vertebra of a deer -  showing the hole caused by a spear.
One of the bones found - the vertebra of a deer - showing the hole caused by a spear.

Stabbing, not throwing

Using advanced motion sensor technology and a test model, similar to what the police use for ballistics research, the researchers explored how the wounds must have been inflicted: by stabbing a wooden spear at relatively low speed into a bone, they were able to reproduce the specific shape of one of the wounds. The researchers conclude from this that the Neanderthals approached the animals from very close by and most probably stabbed them with their spears from below, rather than throwing their spears from a great distance. Such a confrontational method of hunting called for careful planning and very precise teamwork between individual hunters, Pop explained. 

Wooded surroundings

The lake where the hunting took place was surrounded by dense woodland; an environment that was particularly challenging for hunter-gatherers, and even for modern hunters. Tens of thousands of bones of large mammals (deer, horses, cattle) and thousands of artefacts from the last interglacial period have been found in the area. These finds suggest that the Neanderthals were well able to survive in this wooded environment. 

Smoking gun

Although early humans probably started to hunt using weapons over half a million years ago, to date there was no real evidence about how they used wooden spear-like objects - that have previously been found in the UK and Germany. ‘As far as the use of spears is concerned, finally we now have the crime scene that fits the proverbial "smoking gun",' the researchers commented.

Simulation of the way Neanderthals killed the deer with their spear.
Simulation of the way Neanderthals killed the deer with their spear.


In partnership with German archaeologists at the MONREPOS research institution, and scientists from the universities of Mainz and Zurich, large-scale excavations were carried out in Neumark Nord between 2003 and 2007. Dozens of Leiden students also helped with the excavations in the 125,000-year-old lake landscape.  Pop: ‘This project has delivered many finds and publications, and has also resulted in a re-analysis of material that was excavated elsewhere.  This article is one of the outcomes.' 

Image above: Leiden students excavating at one of the Neumark-Nord lakes, summer 2007.

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