A trio of new studies on prehistoric weapons suggests Neanderthals made sophisticated weapons and tools — possibly including the first sticky adhesive — but they lacked the projectile weapons possessed by early humans.
The missing technology, along with climate change and competition with arrow-shooting humans, may have contributed to the Neanderthals' eventual extinction.
"While we are not suggesting that modern humans were directing projectile weapons against Neanderthals, it is certainly possible that at times they did so," Steven Churchill, co-author of one of the papers, told Discovery News.
Churchill, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, and colleague Jill Rhodes compared Neanderthal fossils with those of prehistoric and modern humans, focusing on the shoulder and elbow.
"When engaged in overhead throwing activity, such as throwing a baseball, or a spear, this increases the movement arm of the muscles and gives greater strength and velocity to the throw," said Rhodes, a visiting assistant professor of anthropology at Bryn Mawr College.
She explained to Discovery News that modern athletes, like baseball pitchers and handball players, often show a characteristic backward displacement at the shoulder joint. Usually just one joint shows this, since most people have a preferred throwing arm.
The anthropologists found this telltale skeletal characteristic in the early modern European fossils, but not in the Neanderthals. The findings are published in the current issue of the Journal of Human Evolution.
"Neanderthals probably hand threw spears over short distances, but perhaps they simply never got around to inventing means of propelling spears or other projectiles long distances," said Churchill.
"Or perhaps their...short, squat body build with short and massive limbs was not conducive to using throwing-based hunting technology," he added.
Neanderthals, however, likely came up with an important technological innovation that changed weapon-making for thousands of years to come.
Archaeologist Eric Boeda of University of Paris X, Nanterre, and his team recently discovered bitumen, a tar-like substance, on sharpened stone points associated with Neanderthals who lived in Syria 70,000 years ago. Bitumen served as an adhesive, allowing the Neanderthals to fasten points to wooden handles in a process known as hafting.
The findings, published in the latest issue of Antiquity, push known bitumen usage back by 30,000 years.
By the time modern humans migrated to Europe from Africa 40,000 years ago, bows and arrows were likely their weapons of choice, said John Shea, associate professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University. He indicated they're still popular with many Africans today.
"Nobody in Africa uses spear-throwers, and they use spears mainly for warfare and hunting the really big game, such as elephants, rhinos and hippos," Shea explained.
"Instead," he added, "nearly everybody uses bows and arrows for routine hunting, fishing and warfare too."