Around 45,000 years ago Neanderthals and modern humans coexisted in mainland Europe. However, over the course of the next 5,000 years the human population increased dramatically, allowing them to occupy new territories, while Neanderthals gradually died out.


Exactly why this was the case has long eluded archaeologists, but now, an international team of researchers may have found the answer – modern humans developed projectile weapons such as spears and spear-throwers and bows and arrows to enable them to hunt more successfully than Neanderthals.

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As a result, modern humans had ready access to food and were able to thrive while Neanderthals struggled to find sustenance and eventually went extinct.

The team found evidence of projectile weapons dating back 40,000 to 45,000 years, more than 20,000 earlier than any similar weapons found previously, in the Grotta del Cavallo, a limestone cave found in Southern Italy known to have been used by early modern humans during the Paleolithic era.

They studied 146 crescent-shaped fragments found at the site, first by eye and then using digital microscopes, and then compared the patterns of damage and wear with experimental samples they had fashioned in the lab.

Did humans and Neanderthals interbreed?

Asked by: Benjamin Hatch, Leeds

Yes, and more than once! DNA analysis suggests that the earliest encounter between the two species was 100,000 years ago, just as the earliest wave of Homo sapiens was migrating out of Africa.

They met Neanderthals moving eastwards from Europe to Asia and swapped genes. Later interbreeding periods happened 55,000 and 40,000 years ago, and each time we acquired some Neanderthal genes. Unless you are of sub-Saharan descent, your genome contains 1-4 per cent Neanderthal DNA.

They found many examples of impact fractures and microscopic impact traces were found on the backed pieces – proof that they were used as hunting weapons.

“The diagnostic impact fractures showed the similar patterns of experimental samples delivered by a spear-thrower and a bow, but significantly different from those observed on throwing and thrusting samples,” said Prof Katsuhiro Sano, an anthropologist based at Tohoku University in Japan.

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“Modern humans migrating into Europe equipped themselves with mechanically delivered projectile weapons, such as spear-thrower-darts or a bow-and-arrows, which had a higher impact hunting strategy and offered modern humans a substantive advantage over Neanderthals.”

Also, spectroscope analysis of various residues found on several of the pieces demonstrate that the spearheads and arrowheads were attached to the shafts of the weapons using a complex adhesive made from ochre, plant gum, and beeswax, further indicating their use in the hunting of prey.


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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.