Neanderthals Hunted Fallow Deer

In a study published June 25 in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, an international team of researchers reports lesions observed on two fallow deer skeletons from Neumark-Nord, Germany, unearthed during excavations of 120,000-year-old lake shore deposits with traces of Neanderthal presence. A detailed analysis of the lesions demonstrates that they resulted from the close-range use of thrusting spears.

Neanderthals. Image credit: University of Utah 

“Animal resources play a key role in hominin subsistence from at least 2.5 million years ago, but how Paleolithic foragers obtained such resources is still unclear,” said lead author Professor Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and colleagues.

“The oldest known potential hunting weapons are a distal point of a spear-like object from Clacton, England (400,000 years old) and a series of sharpened wooden staves from Schöningen, Germany (300,000 years old), but there are no data on how such objects were actually used.”

“We report on lesions of bones of two fallow deer (Dama dama geiselana) that were killed 120,000 years ago on the shores of a lake surrounded by closed-canopy forests, near Neumark-Nord (Germany).”

With an innovative experimental ballistic setup, including state-of-the-art motion-sensor technology, Professor Gaudzinski-Windheuser and co-authors were able to reproduce the specific form of one of the lesions.

The results prove the use of a wooden thrusting spear that was impacted with low velocity.

Estimated impact angle shown in relation to a standing fallow deer for the hunting lesion observed in the pelvis of a deer killed by Neanderthals 120,000 years ago in Germany. Image credit: Eduard Pop, MONREPOS Archaeological Research Center and Museum for Human Behavioral Evolution, Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Leibniz Research Institute for Archaeology.

“This suggests that Neanderthals approached animals very closely and thrusted rather than threw their spears at the animals, most likely from an underhand thrusting angle,” the researchers explained.

“Such a confrontational way of hunting required careful planning and concealment as well as close cooperation between individual hunters.”

“The lake where the hunts took place was surrounded by a close canopy forest, a type of environment deemed particularly challenging for hunter-gatherers, even modern human ones.”

“Although hominins most likely started hunting with weapons more than 500,000 years ago, actual evidence on how wooden spear-like objects were used was absent prior to the identification of the Neumark-Nord hunting lesions,” Professor Gaudzinski-Windheuser said.

“As far as spear use is concerned, we now finally have the crime scene fitting to the proverbial smoking gun.”

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