Did Spear-Throwing Humans Kill Neanderthals?

By Allison Bond | July 23, 2009 4:09 pm

Neanderthal deathAnalysis of a Neanderthal skeleton known as Shanidar 3 found in the late 1950s shows that the he likely died from injuries incurred by a thrown spear, which scientists speculate was thrown by a modern human, according to a study published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Although a nicked rib on his left side provided a hint as to what killed Shanidar 3, scientists remained stumped on the details for decades. To find a probable cause of death for the Neanderthal, the researchers used a specially-designed crossbow to fire stone-age projectiles at precise velocities at pig carcasses…. At kinetic energies consistent with a thrown spear, the pig’s rib bore damage consistent with Shanidar 3’s isolated rib puncture [Time]. Higher kinetic energies that matched a knife or spear thrust produced more massive rib damage than that sustained by Shanidar. The scientists also found that the weapon entered Shanidar’s body from about 45 degrees above his body, provided the 5-foot-6-inch Neanderthal was standing at the time.

No one knows why Neanderthals disappeared, but they did so around the time modern humans began to spread from Africa across the globe. That has led some to speculate that our ancestors played a role in Neanderthals’ extinction. In the specific case of Shanidar 3, because modern humans are thought to have developed projectile hunting weapons and Neanderthals hadn’t, the researchers deduced the probable suspect — a modern human [LiveScience]. Still, this case from the files of CSI Stone Age is far from closed. Other scientists have theorized that Neanderthals and humans not only got along, but interbred.

Although evidence of a human-Neanderthal murder remains scant, another Neanderthal skeleton dating back some 36,000 years and found in France showed signs of a scalp injury likely caused by a sharp object that may have been delivered by a modern human at the time, [lead author Steven] Churchill said. “So if the Shanidar 3 case is also a case of inter-specific violence and if Shandiar 3 overlaps in time with modern humans, we’re beginning to get a little bit of a pattern here,” Churchill said [LiveScience]. More-exact carbon dating of the remains could provide stronger evidence for Neandercide, since Shanidar 3 is estimated to have lived between 50,000 and 75,000 years ago; modern humans began to spread around 50,000 years ago.

Related Content:
80beats: Neanderthals Feasted on Seals and Dolphins, Researchers Say
80beats: Neanderthal Mothers Had It Tougher Than Modern Moms
80beats: Neanderthal Tools Were a Match for Early Homo Sapiens
80beats: Neanderthal DNA Shows They Rarely Interbred With Us Very Different Humans

Photo credit: Les Todd / Duke University

  • amphiox

    It seems likely to me that sapiens-neanderthal interactions ran the gamut of interpersonal interactions between people today, from war/murder/assault to run-away-in-terror to share-the-landscape-while-ignoring-the-other guy (or other-guy’s-territory-is-taboo-land/forbidden-zone) to trade to alliance to hanky-panky.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if one day we found a modern human skull with its face smashed by a neanderthal fist, and I don’t think any individual finding of this sort makes any kind of case regarding systemic violence by one group on another as a factor in one group’s extinction, one way or another.

  • scribbler

    I heard somewhere that all the bones from both the Mags and Thals would easily fit in the back of a pickup truck. So, as for evidence, I’d say that “lacking” about covers it all…

    I agree amphiox, my guess is that men haven’t changed that much so to believe these men would have behaved as other men have and do is the best theory to work under until there is more/better proof.

    Don’t know who or how it was figgered but also heard that if the Thals had reproduced with just 2% more survival rates, they’d be here today. Certainly, the Mags could easily have killed that number but I personally think that if they were warring with the Thals, they would have killed way more than that…

    However, if one took a model similar to Native Americans, it would be easy to see how a new, more technologically advanced “tribe” moving in competing for the same resources would easily account for that small but critical drop.

  • Jumblepudding

    Maybe the Cromag speared Mr. Shanidar so he could date his wife, resulting in my ancestors.

  • Albert Bakker

    But Neanderthals did throw spears at least occasionally. It just wasn’t usually a very useful hunting tactic in their habitat + had the side-effect of leaving them momentarily defenceless against potentially dangerous larger prey, either in a miss or an even more dangerous non-lethal hit, or against other dangerous predators in the vincinity looking for an easy snack. Which would then occur in an age when (as a provider for a small group) it was probably not a good idea to get an infectious wound, since homeopathy wasn’t invented yet.

    I don’t know, but it seems to me to be a lot of story spun from very little evidence. We will see if they can get their case more solid than this.

  • tulip

    climate change, disease, war, meteor strikes, solar flares and wind, predators, methane and volcanic eruptions, canabalism, and cigarettes make for a pickup truck chock full’a bones:σ

  • lorelei23

    Too many scientists seem determined to prove that homo sapiens are inherently murderous. It is much more likely that this Neanderthal got in the way of a fellow hunter’s spear while they were trying to take down something big and dangerous. Hunting accidents are very common. Another researcher noted the large number of healed breaks on Neanderthal males, did an analysis and found they matched injuries from modern-day rodeo clowns. The Neanderthals were getting way too close to their prey.

  • Albert Bakker

    #6 I really don’t think we need to prove that Homo Sapiens are a murderous bunch by looking into a possible Neandercide. You must not own a television or read newspapers, bless you.

    And also in this particular case that injury does really strongly suggest a projectile type weapon. Your theory in this case does not hold water.

  • scribbler

    This evidence doesn’t suggest a projectile weapon, it simply doesn’t rule one out.

    Big difference…

  • Albert Bakker

    #8 No, actually it says exactly the opposite. What this report says it that the wound is: “..most consistent with injury from a low kinetic energy, low momentum weapon. ” Which translates into a an arrow or a light spear, maybe such as in the spear-thrower Churchill shows us in the picture (together with a big and heavy Neanderthal spear) “..travelling along a ballistic trajectory.” (Entering Shanidar 3 in his left side at a 45 degree angle between his 8th and 9th rib, cutting the 9th.) But it does not rule out “.. accidental injury or attack by a conspecific wielding a hand-held weapon.”

    This in itself is not really any source of controversy. Again the question is what sort of conclusions you can draw from it. I would think not so much.

  • scribbler

    Um, arrows and spears are high energy (greater velocity) and high momentum (when you double the speed, you quadruple the force).

    What they are comparing the arrow and/or Mag Spear with is the thicker, heavier, stronger spears most commonly used by Thals. It is also presuming that Thals did not throw projectile weapons.

    As for reproducing wounds, I can literally reproduce nearly any wound with any weapon IF I am allowed to manipulate the underlying situations as I will, being an avid and experienced hunter.


    Trouble here is that the range of specs could have been easily produced with both hand held and projectile weapons. Being in the normal range of both weapons, it then technically favors neither.

    I agree that there isn’t enough evidence to draw any hard conclusions! It’s certainly fun and useful to imagine possible scenarios and such. However, the list is nearly endless that could account for this evidence, like the man was lying down and was stabbed by a running man or the man was on an animal’s back as it ran past a Thal buddy who accidentally stabbed him or Jr. made his first, smaller lighter spear and got antsy and threw it into Papa Thal instead of the Mammoth…

    Endless speculation and finite, minuscule hard, incontrovertible evidence.

    Reminds me of a documentary I was watching once where the arch. was going on and on about the religious nature of a small carved reindeer and its significance in a ritualistic primitive society while the Inuit children sat and played with TOYS made of the same material and in a similar fashion…


    Great thoughts and reasoning to all! Interesting mental exercises! Great exchanges of ideas!

  • Angela Katherine

    You are right Lorelei the homo sapiens are all just so lovely. That explains war history and other cruel and violent acts.

  • http://www.clean-living.info clean living

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