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Neanderthals could have been long-distance killers

Neanderthals were dangerous—even at a distance. A new study suggests they might have been able to nail prey with their pointy spears from up to 20 meters away.

Scientists know our archaic cousins stabbed prey at close range. But past experiments suggested Neanderthal-style spears—about 2 meters long and probably weighing a bit less than a kilogram—were too heavy to throw with the force and accuracy required for hunting. Those experiments relied on humans who were often first-time spear throwers, however.

So in the new study, researchers recruited the next best thing to experienced Neanderthal spear hunters: trained javelin throwers, who hurled replicas of a 300,000-year-old Neanderthal spear at hay bales from various distances. It wasn’t an easy task: The athletes hit the target only 25% of the time when it was 10 meters away. But they achieved the same 25% accuracy at 15 meters, and even managed to hit the target 17% of the time at 20 meters—double the range at which scientists thought a hand-thrown spear could be useful for hunting, the team reports today in Scientific Reports.

What’s more, video measurements show the hand-thrown spears carried enough energy and momentum to penetrate an animal’s flesh, the researchers say. This means Neanderthals might not have been limited to stabbing and could have used a variety of hunting strategies—just like modern humans did.