A Guide to the Neanderthal Hunt
The Neanderthal hunters employed remarkable strategies in their quest for food. Trace the intricate techniques and carefully crafted tools the Neanderthals used to take down their prey.
Depiction of a Neanderthal hunting a large elephant 40,000 years ago. (Credit: Denis---S/Shutterstock)
Archaeologists and anthropologists agree that the Neanderthals were accomplished hunters, but what was the source of their skill? How did they seize and slaughter their prey, and with what tools and techniques?
The answers, these specialists say, are imbedded in the archaeological record. Containing an assortment of hints into Neanderthal hunting habits — including their remains, tools and trash — this record reveals that the Neanderthals thrust or threw their spears into their prey simultaneously and in specially selected, strategic areas, painting a sophisticated picture of our closest cousins’ subsistence strategies.
Who Were the Neanderthals?
Though there’s only one type of hominin today, we weren’t always alone in the world. From the origins of our species, Homo sapiens, until around 40,000 years ago, we walked alongside several similar humans, including Homo neanderthalensis.
Also known as the Neanderthals, H. neanderthalensis individuals were stocky, broad-shouldered and big-brained, allowing them to survive some of the coldest climates in Ice Age Europe. And appearing in the archaeological record around 100,000 years prior to our own species, or about 400,000 years ago, they coincided with modern H. sapiens for millennia until their abrupt disappearance.
Why Did the Neanderthals Disappear?
Though the reason for their disappearance remains in doubt, today’s archaeologists and anthropologists typically don’t buy the theory that the Neanderthals were wiped out due to our own species and our own species alone. Far from the brutes that they were once believed to be, more and more discoveries demonstrate that the Neanderthals displayed advanced adaptive behavior, basically disproving the idea that the superiority of H. sapiens decimated them.
Instead, today’s top theories state that several dynamics played a part in the disappearance of the species about 40,000 years ago, with climate change, diseases, demographic weaknesses and interspecies competition and assimilation all aiding the decline.
What Did the Neanderthals Hunt?
Needless to say, the Neanderthals turned out an ample record of their activities in the period prior to their disappearance, allowing archaeologists and anthropologists to detail and describe the ways that they survived.
Though the Neanderthals were omnivores, according to their anatomy, specialists suspect that they ate more meat than anything, thanks to the scarceness of plants in their chilly climate. In fact, the chemical composition of several skeletons supports the species’ affinity for animal food.
Their favorites included reindeer and red deer, though the Neanderthals also ate an assortment of other sizable species, including horses, bison, bulls, mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses. And studies show that the Neanderthals even slaughtered straight-tusked elephants, which were so enormous that they would've sustained as many as 100 individuals for a whole month (if such extensive bands of Neanderthals even existed, that is).
What Hunting Tools Did the Neanderthals Use?
With such substantial species as their targets, specialists say it’s implausible that the Neanderthals took down their prey without weapons. And the discovery of sharpened sticks at several sites associated with the species suggest that the spear was the Neanderthals’ weapon of choice.
Some spears were tipped with wood, while other spears were tipped with sharpened stones. But whatever their material or their method of manufacture, there’s strong support for the notion that the Neanderthals wielded these weapons against animals. Neanderthal-aged animal carcasses display damage consistent with the size and shape of their spear tips.
Detailed analysis of this damage demonstrates that the Neanderthals thrust their weapons toward their prey, driving the tips of their spears directly into their targets. However, some specialists are starting to suggest that the Neanderthals also threw their spears (and sustained trauma in their arms and shoulders as a result of repeated tossing).
What Hunting Techniques Did the Neanderthals Use?
Whether or not they threw their weapons through the air, archaeologists and anthologists stress that the Neanderthals’ tendency to thrust their spears would’ve worked well to ambush disadvantaged animals. In fact, some studies say that Neanderthals pursued prey in specifically selected areas, such as ditches, depressions and blind spots, where they were simpler to slaughter.
Remains at these sites suggest that the Neanderthals swung between a selective and an unselective approach. Though they targeted specific species and individuals at some sites at some times, they also slaughtered any creature that they could catch, all before selecting the best of the bunch to butcher and consume.
As a whole, their approach to hunting relied heavily on the “natural traps” in their terrain. It also hinged on close cooperation, with whole teams of individuals working together to trounce their prey. (Specialists say, for instance, that slaughtering a single straight-tusked elephant would’ve involved an impressive number of Neanderthals, not to mention three to five days of butchery with 25 individuals taking part in the preparation process.)
According to some studies, the amount of meat that the Neanderthals could collect at a single time suggests that the species prepared and preserved food for future meals. Yet, whether or not they possessed this particular skill, specialists overwhelmingly stress that the mechanisms of Neanderthal subsistence were surely much more sophisticated than once thought.