How Good Were Neanderthals at Hunting?

©. Robert Adrian Hillman/Shuttestock

A new study investigates our ancient cousins' hunting abilities.

Our ancient cousins have outdone themselves again.

Some scientists from University College London wanted to figure out just how efficient Neanderthal spears were. So they (the scientists, not the Neanderthals) created replicas of spears ancient Neanderthals had made 300,000 years ago in what is now Germany.

Then the scientists got professional javelin-throwers to try throwing the spears at bales of hay from various distances. The athletes were able to throw the spears up to 65 feet, and they pierced the hay with enough force to tear skin. You could take down a large animal from pretty far away with those things.

"The appearance of weaponry - technology designed to kill - is a critical but poorly established threshold in human evolution," wrote the study's authors. "It is an important behavioural marker representing evolutionary changes in ecology, cognition, language and social behaviours."

This isn't just about hunting. It may change how we think about our extinct cousins.

“This is yet further evidence narrowing the gap between Neanderthals and modern humans,” explained Annemieke Milks, a University College London archaeologist. “It contributes to revised views of Neanderthals as our clever and capable cousins.”

Previously, scientists assumed Neanderthals hunted at a much shorter ranger, while Homo sapiens (that's us) could spear animals much farther away. After all, we humans are the smartest and most capable animals, right? RIGHT?

Well, maybe not so much. This study suggests Neanderthals were just as on top of their hunting game as we were.

"The results imply that robust, highly-trained and habitual throwers could throw spears with more power and at least twice as far as has been widely argued for in the literature," wrote the study's authors.

People often stereotype Neanderthals as being stupid and inefficient, as far from humans as possible. But research over the last few years has indicated the opposite. Neanderthals could make efficient weapons like humans. They were making cave paintings in Spain before humans even got out of Africa.

In fact, we're not even really 100 percent H. sapiens. Ancient H. sapiens mated with Neanderthals and other ancient hominids called Denisovans, so most people actually have a mix of H. sapiens and other hominid DNA (except for some folk in Africa, who are the purest H. sapiens).

All this is to say, we humans may not be as special as we think we are.