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Ancient Javelins

28 January 2019

The Daily Telegraph of 26th January (2019) had a piece by Henry Balkin on Neanderthal spear throwing prowess. As the science correspondent he was citing an article in Science Reports (January 2019). For years, anthropologists and archaeologists, and just about everybody has been of the opinion that Neanderthals were a sixpence short of a shilling (or a dime short of a dollar). However, once scientists had begun to investigate them more completely views have begun to change. They were little different to modern humans in many ways. This story represents another nail in the coffin of the Neanderthal brute. Scientists at University College in London made replicas of Neanderthal spears. The blueprint came from spears found in a cave in Germany and another example (damaged) found at Clacton on Sea in Essex (which goes back 300,000 years ago). After fashioning a number of spears they recruited javelin athletes to test them out. They established the spears could reach a target from a distance of 20m with enough force to kill a large animal. So, all those stories about Neanderthals living dangerously with rudimentary spears that required close quarter killing strategies should now be dead and buried. Neanderthals had the ability to kill at long range – or from a hiding place near a water hole, for example. The problem archaeologists have with any early humans, even modern foragers, is that wood is a perishable material – but wood is the most abundant source for tools and weapons out there in the real world. Even the building abilities of people a couple of thousand years ago is neutralised to a certain extent by the fact wood rots over time. There are ways to get  around this but they are not always self evident. Modern techniques used by archaeology are much more sophisticated than the equipment at hand to 19th and 20th century archaeologists and perhaps it was understandable that Neanderthals were considered to be lower on the human tree – as evolutionary theories enjoyed an ascendance at that time (but have since been gnawed around the edges a bit). How evolutionary theories might cope with clever chappie Neanderthals has yet to be established as every time they decide to set a barrier between them and modern humans a new discovery comes along and blows their new marker apart. The same thing has of course happened with the Mesolithic inhabitants of Europe – hardly focussed on by the great and the good, looked at as primitive savages and not worth consideration. It is becoming clear that Mesolithic people were favouring certain fruits and nuts and actively assisting the natural world in letting them grow at the expense of other plants without such desired properties. This should have been obvious as the same thing occurred, for example, amongst the early Mayan tribes. They actively encouraged certain plants – in the forest zone. In the modern world we are losing the ability of studying foraging tribes (living in the raw). In Africa the Bushmen have almost been wiped out – and the survivors are heavily influenced by the modern world. Yet these people lived across most of southern and eastern Africa for thousands and thousands of years – and were geared into their environment. They also used spears – and bow and arrows. So far, there is no evidence Neanderthals used the bow and arrow.

The same story is at https://phys.org/print467617600.html

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