Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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To uncover the habits of ancient humans, scientists are studying modern sports stars

Bridget Alex writes:

Archaeologist Annemieke Milks planned to test the ballistic properties of some of the world’s oldest spears. Crafted by Neanderthals 300,000 years ago, the wooden artifacts measure about 7 feet long and resemble oversized broomsticks with sharpened tips. When discovered in the 1990s at a site in Schöningen, Germany, they rested alongside the butchered remains of 35 horses. Apparently, Neanderthals, armed with the spears, had some very successful hunts.

But just how fast and far could these ancient weapons soar?

Milks wanted the answers, so she commissioned a woodworker to carve replicas from dense spruce. Yet to do the experiment right, Milks needed study participants who could throw like their lives depended on it. Neanderthals were, after all, hunter-gatherers, who killed their daily meals with spears and other primitive technology. Put a spear into the hands of most people today and they’d go hungry.

“The main issue was just trying to get beyond the total lack of skill in throwing,” says Milks, a researcher at University College London. Earlier studies tested inexperienced throwers — sometimes the scientists themselves — and concluded the spears could only sail a couple of dozen feet, feebly. “I raised my eyebrows,” she recalls.

As part of research published in 2018 in Scientific Reports, Milks put six javelin athletes to the test. The trained throwers launched Schöningen spear replicas over 35 mph and more than 80 feet.

By using athletes as study subjects, Milks added fresh data to an old debate: Scholars have long argued that Neanderthal weapons were too hefty to hurl and, therefore, had to be thrust directly into prey. Compared with throwing from afar, this jabbing technique would have been high risk, low return — and could have played a role in Neanderthals’ eventual extinction.

But “in the hands of an expert, you see quite a different picture,” she says. “The spears perform well. They fly.” [Continue reading…]

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