Could neanderthals throw?

Between 40,000 and ~27,000 years ago humans and neanderthals co-existed in Europe. Whilst there would likely have been some competition (there always is when two similar species try and live in the same locations) we don’t know quite to what extent. What we do know


ResearchBlogging.orgBetween 40,000 and ~27,000 years ago humans and neanderthals co-existed in Europe. Whilst there would likely have been some competition (there always is when two similar species try and live in the same locations) we don’t know quite to what extent. What we do know is that, in the end, neanderthals went extinct. However, the more we learn about the neanderthals the more we find out they were very similar to us.  Whilst this is fascinating it ultimately creates a very big mystery: why did we live, but they die out?

Over the years many explanations have been postulated for why we are the only living Homo left, the vast majority of which were proven wrong. For example, some had suggested that the neanderthals had yet to unlock the secrets of fire which put them at a disadvantage compared to us pyromaniacs. However, it has since been found that neanderthals did in fact use fire.

A projectile armed with microliths. Imagine how much lighter it is than one with a solid stone point

One of the more persistent explanations of why neanderthals died out is their (allegedly) inferior throwing ability. Whilst this might seem like a fairly absurd deficiency to condemn a species to extinction, you must remember that humans took steps to improve their throwing ability at every possible opportunity. We started using lighter microliths as spearpoints, rather than solid stones. Then we adopted the atlatl and, later, the bow and arrow. Being able to hit something with more force from further away is a skill we value.

So inferior throwing power could’ve put the neanderthals at a real disadvantage, but is there any evidence they weren’t that great at it? Typically the cited evidence for this conclusion comes from two areas: anatomical differences between us and neanderthals and pathological/lifestyle differences. Today we’ll focus on the latter.

A lot of the pathological evidence is based on a study which looked at the various injuries neanderthals had sustained and found they’d suffered from a lot of upper body trauma. This pattern of injury is similar to that of many rodeo riders. Whilst nobody is attempting to argue the neanderthals rode bulls, the idea is that these injuries occur from getting “up close and personal” with animals (i.e. not using ranged weapons).  Having witnessed the Calgary Stampede, I can attest to the fact rodeo riders do get up close and personal with animals.

However, there are two flaws with this line of reasoning. The first being the upper body is naturally more susceptible to injury since it’s less robust than the lower body. Our arms don’t have to support our body weight so they aren’t as strong as our legs. Further, many upper body bones are just more vulnerable.  The clavicle, for example, doesn’t fully ossify (turn to bone) until past the age of 21 so is quite fragile throughout early adulthood. As such it is one of the more frequently broken bones in the body.

Secondly (and perhaps more importantly), rodeo riders do get up close and personal with animals. They can also throw! These injuries do not demonstrate neanderthals were poor throwers. It’s known they hunted large prey, including mammoths. Even with throwing spears these creatures could well have still charged and injured neanderthal hunters Indeed, similar injuries are being found in contemporary humans.

I like the way his friends are just laughing at him

So if the pathological evidence is far from convincing, what about the lifestyle evidence? Contrary to popular perception, bone is quite a “fluid” part of the body, constantly remodelling itself according to an individuals lifestyle. Use a particular muscle a lot and its attachment sites on the bone will become larger and stronger. As such archaeologists can pick out general trends of activity in past individuals.

The trend they spot for neanderthals is asymmetric: their right arm is typically larger than their left, indicating that their right arm was stronger. This has been cited as evidence of them using thrusting spears. Rather than throwing them, neanderthals would get up close to the animals and jab them with their spears. Being right handed, these neanderthals would generate most of the thrust for this jabbing with their right hand resulting in the observed asymmetry.

On the surface this provides much more sound support for neanderthals being “up close and personal” with their prey than the pathology. Unlike the inherent differences between the upper and lower body, there’s little that would result in the right arm becoming stronger unless it were actually being used more. And experimental archaeology has shown that when thrusting a spear, most of the force is generated at the back (where the right hand would be) so there seems to be no problems there.

However, a new study has argued that this line of reasoning is also flawed. A team of researchers used an electromyograph to record the electrical activity produced by muscles during various activities a neanderthal may have participated in, including spear thrusting. Contrary to what would be expected, they found that muscles in the right arm weren’t used more during spear thrusting. Indeed, the left arm seemed to be used more (although the standard deviation for the results often overlapped quite a bit, so this may not be significant).

The energy used by the pectoralis major during a variety of activities.

As such it would seem that spear thrusting cannot adequately explain the asymmetry we observe in neanderthals. But rather than leave us hanging on another mystery, the team also found what might be the cause off it. Their results showed that the push/pull motions associated with scraping a hide would require more effort by the right hand. So it would seem that it was actually making clothes, not thrusting, which produced the asymmetry.

That said, this paper does not demonstrate neanderthals weren’t thrusting at animals. They could still have been. However, what this does mean is that we now have very little evidence to suggest they were using close range spears. As such the idea that neanderthals couldn’t throw is relegated back to “unsupported hypothesis,” at least based on the pathological and lifestyle evidence.

And once again, we’re left with the mystery of why we’re the only hominin left on the planet.

Part 2 ->

Erik Trinkaus (2012). Neandertals, early modern humans, and rodeo riders Journal of Archaeological Science DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2012.05.039
Shaw CN, Hofmann CL, Petraglia MD, Stock JT, & Gottschall JS (2012). Neandertal humeri may reflect adaptation to scraping tasks, but not spear thrusting. PloS one, 7 (7) PMID: 22815742

This post taught me how to spell “asymmetry”

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18 thoughts on “Could neanderthals throw?”

  1. Perry Kraicer says:

    I have found each and every one of your communications to be enjoyable, educational and fun. Thank you for writing and posting this newsletter.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      And thank you for your kind words

  2. Andre Salzmann says:

    I am an artist,studied Psychology, Sociology and Archeology years ago. Enjoy these posts tremendously.
    In southern Africa the black tribes moved in approximately a thousand years ago and pushed the San from lush environment to desert areas where they adapted and survived. The black people used spears and the San had acquired bows and arrows. The black people never adopted the bows and arrows. I have always wondered about this as both hunted.Does this possibly relate to a three dimensional visual ability?
    Started taking notice of the development of artistic capability from early Egyptian times to today. Seems our three dimensional visual capabilities definitely developed over the years. Also seems likely that different groups could have this ability to varying degrees?
    Question then is, if one has a better or worse three dimensional visual ability,how does that relate to other calculating (brain function) abilities. Thus. Could sapiens have had a better ability to plan, store foods, anticipate weather and so forth. Does usage of the bow and arrow indicate this ability? Is it not perhaps rather the development of this factor of “European” sapiens brain that caused him to “absorb” the neanderthal?
    Wish i had information of scientific studies on this aspect.
    Thank you for these posts.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      I suspect the people who drove the San out of their territory never adopted the bow and arrow because they had no need. If I recall correctly, they were farmers. You don’t need a bow and arrow to farm.

      At any rate, neanderthals appear to have had a similar (if not slightly larger) visual cortex than humans so I doubt they had an inferior visual ability.

      1. Andre Salzmann says:

        Really have to reply.I definitely don’t think the answer is as simple as that. From what i know, the people that moved south into Africa herded cattle and cultivated two to five crops. Africa has an abundance of wild life and even today some are sought after as “delicatessens” and a bow and arrow would have been a major advantage in acquiring these foods. There were also numerous predators that posed serious threats. The San also developed very effective poisons to use on arrow tips.
        I don’t know that brain size necessarily equates functionality?
        It seems reasonable to me that the history of southern Africa of the last 2000 years and that of Europe since sapiens moved in 40 thousand years ago, could be very similar from a, shall we say, sociological point of view. Humans, differing from one another fairly distinctively(even physically), lived here in a contained geographical area, Four groups, if i am not making a mistake. Tsetse fly and malaria form an effective barrier between northern and southern Africa. Descendants of these different people are still alive today but sadly their cultures are being eradicated. An opportunity in in Anthropological
        Archeology is going lost.
        It seems rather bizarre to one that (what must have been) a small group of
        people moved into an area ( virtually yesterday) and eradicated peoples that
        were established there (evolved there) for over a million years. They apparently moved from the tip of southern Africa, crossed all the barriers and
        upset an establishment of more than a million years.
        They must have had rather special attributes. We should identify them.

        1. Adam Benton says:

          Farming has consistently overthrown hunter-gatherers, so I’m not sure if some inherent biological differences are really involved. Whilst I don’t mean to imply it was a simple situation – there’s always a complex interaction as farming spreads – I’m just not convinced you have to appeal to biology to explain it.

  3. 2012 and all that says:

    Another cracking post; i do like to keep up with stuff I didn’t pursue at university in favour of other areas.

    keep up the good work!

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Why thank you

  4. R. K. Sepetjian says:

    Neanderthals buried their dead, played flutes and drew on cave walls…but they couldn’t throw?!

    1. Adam Benton says:

      They could, the argument is that they weren’t very good at it and didn’t really use projectile weapons to hunt. On the surface, there is quite a bit of support for this notion. Their weapons were heavy and would’ve been difficult to thrown, they had the aforementioned injuries and pathology and their shoulder joint is different to ours. However, in the light of new and improved knowledge it would seem this idea does not stand up.

        1. Adam Benton says:

          Fascinating stuff. And somewhat humbling. You look back at the past when we could only really learn about the brain via damage it had received, then realise that there are some aspects of neurology which still rely on a similar source for understanding.

  5. Pingback: Stone tipped spears used 500,000 years ago | EvoAnth
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  7. caw mentor says:

    The disadvantage of a heavier spear, is only a problem for the weak modern human. Neanderthal was bigger and stronger than us so a bigger heavier spears could likely be thrown just as far as we threw our microlith tipped lighter spears.

  8. Pingback: How old is throwing? | EvoAnth
  9. Trackback: How old is throwing? | EvoAnth
  10. ben tillman says:

    There are humans alive today who have the Neanderthal shoulder and cannot throw overhand properly because of it. I am one of them.

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