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 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.
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.
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).
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.
|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”