Fans of actual athletic competitions have been running away from the Summer Olympics since the televised events have been dominated by gymnastics, swimming and the opening and closing ceremonies. Fans of track-and-field events have almost no reason to watch, especially if they’re hoping to see the throwing events — shot put, discus, hammer and javelin. Those events never make it to the coverage unless someone is hit by one of the airborne objects … especially a javelin. That’s too bad, because, outside of running and swimming, this spear-throwing event is probably one of the oldest, dating back far beyond the ancient Olympic games. In fact, a new study suggests the first prehistoric javelin competition may have been between a Homo sapien and … a Neanderthal! Who won? Did he get a rock-on-a-rope to hang around his neck?
“While the earliest weapons are often considered to be hand-held and consequently short-ranged, the subsequent appearance of distance weapons is a crucial development. Projectiles are seen as an improvement over contact weapons, and are considered by some to have originated only with our own species in the Middle Stone Age and Upper Palaeolithic.”
The study, “External ballistics of Pleistocene hand-thrown spears: experimental performance data and implications for human evolution,” published recently in Scientific Reports, begins with what researchers have long assumed – that humans came up with the idea of throwing sharp sticks instead of just running with them and putting their eyes out. The oldest known spears are the Schöningen spears, eight wooden throwing spears from the Palaeolithic Age that were found amongst thousands of animal bones in Schöningen, Germany. That makes them about 400,000 years old, which predates the Neanderthals. Dr. Annemieke Milks (UCL Institute of Archaeology), the study leader, wondered if the Neanderthals, besides having sex with humans, shared any other kinds of spearing.
To find out, the researchers gave replicas of the Schöningen spears to six modern javelin throwers (who were probably grateful for the workout). Modern javelins are made of metal and are between 2.6 and 2.7 m (8 ft 6 in and 8 ft 10 in) in length and 800 g (28 oz) in weight. The replicas were made by hand from Norwegian spruce trees and weighed between 760 g and 800 g – what the Schöningen spears were believed to have weighed. The points were sharpened with stone tools, keeping the design as close to the original as possible.
How did the athletes do with the Schöningen spears? They were able to hit targets up to 20 meters away with sufficient velocity and force that they would have penetrated the hide and body of a large animal. That wouldn’t have won an Olympic medal — the first Olympic javelin record was set by Sweden’s Eric Lemming, who competed from 1900 to 1912, with a throw of 62.32 meters or 204.5 feet. However, he didn’t have to aim his spear at a running beast, which would have been an interesting, albeit gruesome, event. Nonetheless, the Neanderthal spear throwers were winners too.
“The results show that distance hunting was likely within the repertoire of hunting strategies of Neanderthals, and the resulting behavioural flexibility closely mirrors that of our own species.”
Winners, yes. But perhaps this ability made them losers in a way. Study co-author Dr. Matt Pope, University College London, had this observation in Science Daily:
“The emergence of weaponry, technology designed to kill, is a critical but poorly established threshold in human evolution. We have forever relied on tools and have extended our capabilities through technical innovation. Understanding when we first developed the capabilities to kill at distance is therefore a dark, but important moment in our story.”
With every new discovery, we find out that we share more with the Neanderthals than we once thought.
Or are WE the Neanderthals?