Researchers find proof that “spear-thrower and bow-and-arrow technologies” allowed modern humans to hunt better than Neanderthals
10/05/2020 // Virgilio Marin // Views

An ancient set of tools made by early modern humans were used much like a spear-thrower and a bow and arrow. This, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, gave them a distinct advantage compared to Neanderthals.

Researchers from Italy and Japan examined how the pieces were used by modern humans and found impact patterns resembling those of a spear-thrower and a bow. Hurled from a distance, these tools allowed them to hunt more efficiently and outcompete Neanderthals, a species of archaic humans that went extinct about 40,000 years ago. The two species co-existed for about 5,000 years in Europe, but for reasons mostly unclear prior to the study, the Neanderthals weren’t able to thrive like the modern humans did.

“As the advanced hunting strategy is straightforwardly related to a competitive advantage,” said co-author Stefano Benazzi of the University of Bologna in Italy and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. “This study offered important insight to understand the reasons for the replacement of Neanderthals by modern humans.”

Stone tools used for long-range hunting

The team studied 146 crescent-shaped backed tools from the Uluzzian stone culture, which were retrieved from the Grotta del Cavallo, a cave in southern Italy. The Uluzzian culture is considered the first stone tradition of the Upper Paleolithic developed by modern humans in Europe. The Upper Paleolithic is the third and last subdivision of the Old Stone Age.

The researchers wanted to know how the backed tools were used by modern humans in order to uncover key characteristics of the Uluzzian culture. After analyzing the tools, the team found that many of them had impact fractures and tiny impact linear traces, suggesting that they were used as hunting weapons. Moreover, the impact patterns were similar to those found on a spear-thrower and a bow, while being radically different from those observed on throwing and thrusting tools.


“Modern humans migrating into Europe equipped themselves with mechanically delivered projectile weapons, such as a spear thrower darts or a bow-and-arrows,” said first author Katsuhiro Sano of Center for Northeast Asian Studies at Tohoku University. Sano added that such weapons were more efficient for hunting because they provided a more lethal blow, offering modern humans a competitive advantage over Neanderthals.

The researchers further analyzed the residues found on the tools and found that the pieces were likely hafted, meaning they were built with a handgrip. Modern humans likely used ochre, plant gum and beeswax to glue a handle and keep it from falling apart, said the team.

They concluded that the backed tools may have had allowed modern humans to dominate the land and contribute to the decline of Neanderthals. (Related: Scientists find new mystery human ancestor whose DNA remains in people today.)

Evolutionary disadvantage of Neanderthals

Hunting from a distance has several benefits; it allows a person to hide from its prey or, as Sano said, deliver a more lethal blow. But for some reason, it appears the Neanderthals never developed such long-range hunting strategies – or, they might have tried but were hampered by an evolutionary disadvantage.

In a study published in the Journal of Human Evolution, anthropologists compared Neanderthal fossils with those of prehistoric and modern humans. They focused on the elbow and shoulders specifically for the study; present-day humans exhibit a characteristic backward displacement in the shoulder joint, an ability that’s important for athletes specializing in throwing sports, such as javelin.

The researchers were able to find telltale skeletal indicators for this ability in modern human fossils, but not in the Neanderthals fossils. Co-author Steven Churchill, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, said that Neanderthals likely made weapons thrown at shorter distances but had never gotten around making long-range weapons. However, it’s also possible that they did, but these tools probably had little use to Neanderthals, added Churchill.

In fact, there’s research suggesting that this extinct species was perfectly capable of making sophisticated tools. For one, another group of researchers discovered a tar-like substance, called bitumen, on sharpened stone points linked to Neanderthals who lived in Syria some 70,000 years ago. The substance served as an adhesive, which allowed them to attach handgrips onto bladed weapons – just like modern humans did in the previous study. The difference, however, is that evolutionary odds were on the side of modern humans. Adaptive capabilities can be weapons too. (Related: Neanderthals gave humans the gene for disease.) has more on recent archaeological finds.

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