Neanderthals hunted deer using close-range thrusting spears, reports a study published online this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
The idea that Neanderthals - and their earlier hominin relatives, Homo heidelbergensis - used spears to hunt is supported by the previous unearthing of 300,000-400,000-year-old wooden spears in both Britain and Germany. However, since evidence of hunting damage on both prey species and spears is rarely preserved, especially together, archaeologists could only speculate as to exactly how the wooden spears were used.
Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser and colleagues use microscopic imaging and ballistic tests to experimentally reproduce hunting damage found on fallow deer skeletons from the 120,000-year-old lakeshore archaeological site of Neumark-Nord, in Germany. The authors propose that the deer were killed by being thrust at with sharp wooden spears at close range, maybe as part of cooperative ambush tactics.
In an accompanying News & Views, Annemieke Milks emphasizes that the fact that deer at Neumark-Nord were hunted with close-range spears does not preclude the possibility that Neanderthals could have also hunted with longer-range throwing spears elsewhere. However, it does illustrate that Neanderthals could hunt in closed, forested landscapes, hinting at complex hunting strategies and cooperative behaviour, she notes.