Mousterian Spears, Modern Projectiles and Shanidar III

In keeping with these wintry conditions, there’s a veritable avalanche of news concerning the late lamented Neanderthals this past week, including spears, teeth and decorated marine shells, with much of  the debate concentrating, as ever, on the physical and behavioural differences between the Neanderthal archaic humans and the subsequent anatomically modern humans (AMH) with whom they were obliged to share residence and resources in Upper Palaeolithic Eurasia, especially in western Europe .

As ever, some of the research seeks to persuade us of putative differences between the two species, and some argues that Neanderthals were greatly more cognitively advanced than traditionalists would have us believe.

I’m going to continue with this post, in which I’ll discuss the research of Steven E. Churchill, Associate Professor in Evolutionary Biology at Duke University, Durham NC, who has conducted research into the evolution of projectile weaponry, which he contends was invented by AMH. and moreover gave them an enhanced ability to hunt animals at a greater distance, thus giving them a killer advantage over Neanderthals, who apparently were only able to deploy thrusting spears, forcing them to hunt prey at much closer quarters. Slightly more controversially he claims that projectile weapons allowed for a modicum of social control in early societies, and today allows for control of modern societies and as a means for resolving – or exacerbating – disputes between nation states or other warring parties such as religious groups, i.e. through the use of guns, shells and bullets, which themselves are the descendants of the spears, darts and arrows of yesteryear.

These recent studies are covered amongst others by CBS News and American Scientist, who as noted at Mind Hacks, have produced a great 45-minute podcast, in which Professor Churchill holds forth in a lecture, which reprises a paper published in the Journal of Human Evolution in July 2009. He opines that before the AMH invention of projectile weapons, ancient humans were to a great extent confined to hunting large mammals, whom they sought to take by surprise or ambush, and finishing them off by stabbing them to death.

In contrast, we are asked to accept that with the invention of projectile weaponry, such as throwing-spears, spear throwers and the bow and arrow, AMH were able to expand the range at which they hunted prey, from around an average of 4 metres for thrusting spears to around 20- 40 metres with projectiles or missiles, which in turn would have given them much better opportunities to kill more prey on a more frequent basis, ultimately leading them to out-compete the Neanderthals into extinction.

Although he doesn’t completely rule out the idea that Neanderthals or pre-Mousterian humans never threw spears, he discounts the Schöningen spears‘ (+image) mooted comparison with modern-day javelins, and notes the Mousterian stone points bear evidence of having been hafted onto wooden shafts for use as thrusting weapons. Staying with the archaeological evidence, he cites Upper Palaeolithic spear- throwers, complete with their elegant engravings, as a strong indication that AMH had developed fully functional projectile weapons systems, and further surmises that the physical attributes of AMH, especially in the upper limb-bones, was much more conducive to throwing spears than those of Neanderthals.

Which is all well and good, but by concentrating solely on artefactual archaeology, in the guise of stone points and spear shafts, I think Professor Churchill has missed out on other evidence that strongly suggests that Neanderthals and even earlier archaic humans emphatically did not rely only on killing large mammals by spearing them to death as their only means of hunting meat – the zooarchaeological evidence from Ruth Blasco et al at Bolomor Cave and Naama Goren-Inbar et al at Gesher Benot Ya’akov paints a subtly different picture, because from those sites we have the evidence in the remains of small mammals such as rabbits at 350 kya, birds, possibly ducks or geese, dating to 150 kya,and fish such as carp at 780 kya.

In fact, by taking in this other documented and peer-reviewed evidence, we see a much more interesting story emerging, because although as yet there is no evidence at all to show how these elusive food resources were obtained, it seems reasonable to assume that brain rather than brawn in archaic humans was the key element in their acquisition. Whether the use of bait or traps was known, or (however seemingly improbable) even that other animals (such as hunting birds, ferrets or dogs) were somehow partially domesticated, trained or otherwise induced to target, pursue and capture some of these prey at the humans’  behest, I think it’s necessary to stand back and consider at the larger picture of meat acquisition skills among archaic humans that is slowly unfolding

However the idea that Neanderthals weren’t the top predators in the food-chain during their Middle Palaeolithic sojourn might well be true – they merely needed to be an adequate predator in competition with the other carnivores, though whether this competition by default restricted Neanderthal population numbers, keeping them in an equilibrium of  sorts with the Palaleo-fauna is an idea that hopefully will be examined further, although conclusive proof might be hard to come by.

And whereas the tortoises at Bolomor wouldn’t have required too much effort to catch, nor the mussels and (presumably scavenged dolphin) at Gorham’s Cave, from c.24,5 kya, it should also be borne in mind that archaic humans didn’t just rely on the faunal population for all their food. There are fish and plant remains from the cave at El Salt, another Neanderthal occupation site in modern-day Spain, and it’s possible that future evidence gleaned from phytoliths on ancient stone tools will yield further evidence that humans were eating cereals and grains a great deal earlier than for example the onset of agriculture, as hinted at by this recent article on sorghum consumption, at 100 kya, albeit in this case, by AMH.

Having said that, it’s worth bearing in mind that to maintain their more robust bodies, Neanderthals in particular required a vast calorific daily intake to sustain themselves, and thus it is no surprise to find that many of their food remains are indeed from those of large mammals, especially at inland sites – but where other food items were available, it’s clear that they and their predecessors were readily able to adapt to marine and lacustrine environments as well. However, I wonder if they dined exclusively on the fare on offer for more than a few days here and there,  as ongoing pangs of hunger urged them to supplement their diet with those larger mammals.

So although I’d agree in principle that projectile weapons systems do indeed indicate that AMH adopted new technologies and behaviours as a direct result, I think it’s hard to make the case that archaic humans became extinct because such weapons were absent from their itinerary – unless of course, we consider the use of such weapons in the context of fighting between the AMH and Neanderthals, or ‘competitive exclusion’ at kill-sites or over larger areas of favoured territories.

Professor Churchill relates how in recent years there have been more precise studies of carnivores, to the extent that a behaviour identified as ‘interference exclusion’ has been identified, whereby one carnivore species steals a carcass from another, and other circumstances whereby one species will kill competing carnivore species. Mention is made not only of the way in which adults will kill subordinate species, but that carnivore species in general will kill the young of their competitors – he cites lions as killing hyena pups, and wild dogs as killing lion cubs, not because they are part of their normal diet, but because they pose a threat to their own survival.

This is then extrapolated to an example whereby the Professor believes that lions eating a carcass would not have been unduly alarmed by the approach of 3 or 4 Neanderthals approaching with thrusting spears, but that once AMH arrived in greater numbers and armed with projectile weapons, the advantage would have been with the humans. He also notes that in the millennia leading up to and following on from around 30 kya, many species including sabre-toothed cats and cave bears amongst many others became extinct, though whether they were deliberately killed off by spear-throwing humans, in scenes that presaged the Terminal Pleistocene extinction event in the New World around 13 kya, is still an open question. And of course the extinction events in Australia at 40kya, and the less noted African Late Pleistocene extinctions could presumably be included as candidates for consideration in the light of projectiles being hurled with intent around their landscapes too.

The question raised by the carnivore studies is whether AMH humans acted in the same way as their carnivorous counterparts, and set about excluding the Neanderthals by any means possible. But the fact the AMH and Neanderthals were almost certainly able to verbally communicate with one another makes the situation different, regardless of whether one had better hunting technology than the other, and it seems reasonable to assume that a variety of exchanges, ranging from friendly to hostile, took place over a period lasting around 20,000 years, in the European context at least.

The CBS article mentioned above takes us slightly farther afield, specifically to Shanidar Cave, in modern-day Iraq, where a healed wound in the individual known to us now as Shanidar III has been the subject of further study by Professor Churchill, as he addresses the intriguing mystery of how this person came to be injured by a spear-point a couple of years before he died. Here’s a snippet from the article:

Churchill’s curiosity about the fate of Shanidar 3 led him to try re-creating the sharp, deep scratch in the left ninth rib of this hapless Neanderthal. This strategy actually came from Churchill’s colleague John Shea, a paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York who reconstructs the behavior of prehistoric peoples by analyzing their stone tools. To understand how stone points are worn down when piercing flesh and bone, Shea had run a set of experiments, stabbing goat carcasses and then noting the damage to the tools.  Churchill hoped to compare the cuts on Shea’s goat bones to the mark on Shanidar 3’s rib.

Unfortunately, the goat bones were so damaged by the blows that “it was impossible to analyze them,” he says.  He concluded that he would have to do his own experiments to replicate the physics of Shanidar III’s prehistoric wound. Neanderthals were the power-thrusters of the Paleolithic world, driving their heavy spears with great kinetic energy and momentum into bison, boar, and deer. If Shanidar 3 had been injured by such a thrust, it would suggest that he had gotten into a fight with another Neanderthal, or perhaps that he had been hurt in a hunting accident. But if the wound had resulted from a lighter spear-from a projectile deftly thrown at a distance, with less momentum and energy-the attacker was most likely human. There is no evidence whatsoever that Neanderthals ever used throwing spears, Churchill says.

After inflicting a set of sample wounds on pig bones, which are close in terms of size and shape to those of Neanderthals (and which were easily obtained from a nearby slaughterhouse), Churchill and his team of students spent an evening cleaning the bones by boiling them in hot water and Biz, a laundry detergent containing enzymes that are, Churchill says, “really good at breaking down proteins.” The process revealed signs of damage to the pig bones similar to those seen in Shanidar 3. “We cannot definitively rule out accidental wounding, attack with a knife, or attack with a hand-delivered, heavy Neanderthal spear,” Churchill says. “But Shanidar 3’s wound is most consistent with injury from a lightweight, long-range projectile weapon.”

As we see from this earlier post by Kambiz here at, back in 2008, regardless of whether his rib injury was deliberate or accidental, Shanidar III is a pretty interesting individual in his own right, because dental analysis indicates that plants might conceivably have constituted part of his diet, further underlining the idea that Neanderthals weren’t exclusively reliant upon big game animals at every meal-time – however, the authors of that study are cautious in making a definite statement to that effect.

The fact that he had a painful condition, osteoarthritis in one foot, further enhances the mystery as to how he came by his rib wound – if as Churchill suggests,  involved in a skirmish with AMH, why was he considered a threat to the extent that one of their number deemed it necessary to launch a projectile at him, especially given his limited mobility? Further, having been wounded, why was he not finished off on the spot – speedy flight from the scene of an ugly encounter would have been difficult, and yet he managed to survive the incident and live on for a few painful years thereafter.

Projekt Schöninger Speere

Schöningen – ein Projekt der archäologischen Denkmalpflege

image of Shanidar III rib 9 from El extraño caso del neandertal asesinado – Terrae Antiqvae


1. Shanidar 3 Neandertal Rib Puncture Wound and Paleolithic Weaponry by Steven E. Churchill,  Robert G. Franciscus, Hilary A. McKean-Peraza, Julie A. Daniel and Brittany R. Warren Journal of Human Evolution Volume 57, Issue 2, August 2009, Pages 163-178 doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2009.05.010

2. Procesado y consumo antrópico de conejo en la Cova del Bolomor (Tavernes de la Valldigna, Valencia). El nivel XVIIc (ca 350 ka), Blasco et al

6 thoughts on “Mousterian Spears, Modern Projectiles and Shanidar III

  1. “and the less noted African Late Pleistocene extinctions could presumably be included as candidates for consideration”

    Do you have any information on that? I remeber arguing with someone who claimed there was no evidence for African extinctions. I haven’t been able to find any information on the Internet concerning African extinctions but a 1971 book by Bjorn Kurten (“The Age of Mammals”) claimed almost 40% of the different genera of large animals in Africa had become extinct by 60,000 years ago, and most were extinct long before then. Coincides quite closely with most ages given for Y-chromosome Adam, which would support many of the points suggested in this post regarding modern humans and Neanderthals.

  2. Terry – I don’t have a great deal of detailed information on African extinctions, other than that offered by Tyler Faith, whose research on the putative Clovis comet I covered previously.

    During some related correspondence, he stated the following:

    “The fossil record of southernmost Africa documents the disappearance of a giant buffalo, a giant zebra, a giant hartebeest, a sort of mountain goat, and a species of springbok at ~10,000 years ago”

    And going back further, into the Late Pleistocene, “(at) ~100-30 ka sediments in Kenya … the presence of an extinct blesbok, extinct giant hartebeest, extinct giant buffalo, and what is possibly a new species of extinct giant sable antelope (although we have only one tooth). Problem is, most people don’t focus on this time period in East Africa. ”

    He further notes that (in common with say, North America and Australia) many of the these species tended to favour open grasslands, which might imply climate change, as more densely vegetated habitats replace the open landscape.

    Because the African extinctions were less severe, it has further been suggested the human predators may have been to blame, but maybe there were less casualties as humans and fauna had co-evolved over a longer period of time there.

    You’ll recall that the arrow or dart may have been invented in Africa some 60,000 years ago, if the artefacts at Sibudu Cave (d’Errico et al 2007 – doi:10.1016/j.jas.2007.11.006 ), are anything to go by, though I’m not sure to what extent projectile weaponry prevailed through the rest of the MSA from then on, whether it spread from Africa through diffusion only, or was independently invented at different loci on an unknown number of occasions.

    I’m hoping to hear from Tyler Faith in the future when he has more information regarding African extinctions, at which time I’ll cover them here.

  3. Thanks Tim. I like the bit:

    “many of the these species tended to favour open grasslands, which might imply climate change”

    Anything to avoid blaming humans. After all, that’s something that’s only happened with European spread. Anyway, no matter how ‘densely vegetated’ the habitats became there would still have been ‘ open landscape’ somewhere.

    “You’ll recall that the arrow or dart may have been invented in Africa some 60,000 years ago”

    Well. There we have it. Y-hap pre-A. As the technology spread so did his descendants.

  4. Don’t forget that early humans drove large herd animals off cliffs to kill them, even Mammoths and in America Bison.

    Also, don’t forget that there is no evidence Modern Humans are descendants of any of the early fossil primates, nor has even one transition fossil been discovered that Modern Humans ‘evolved’ from these early primates…


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