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CSI Stone Age: Did Humans Kill Neanderthals?

2 minute read
Eben Harrell

It is one of the world’s oldest cold cases. Sometime between 50,000 and 75,000 years ago, a Neanderthal male known to scientists as Shanidar 3 received a wound to his torso, limped back to his cave in what is now Iraq and died several weeks later. When his skeleton was pieced together in thelate 1950s and early ’60s, scientists were stumped by a rib wound that almost surely killed him, hypothesizing that it could have been caused by a hunting accident or even a fellow Neanderthal. New research suggests that Shanidar 3 may have had a more familiar killer: a human being.

Using modern-day forensics, Steven Churchill, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, has determined that Shanidar 3’s wound was most likely caused by a thrown spear. At the time of his death, only humans, who had adapted their hunting techniques to the open plains of Africa, had developed projectile weapons; Neanderthals, who hunted in the close quarters of forests, used thrusting spears.

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“There’s only one species that had the sort of weapon to inflict this injury,” Churchill says. “And that’s us [humans].”

The study, published this week in the Journal of Human Evolution, is part of a growing body of evidence that suggests contact between Neanderthals and humans was often violent and may have played a part in the extinction of our closest prehistoric relatives. Squat, rugged, and well suited to cold, Neanderthals dominated Eurasia for the better part of 200,000 years, surviving an ice age, but the species mysteriously disappeared around the same time modern humans spread out from Africa into their habitat.

To learn the cause of Shanidar 3’s wound, Churchill and his team used a specially designed crossbow to fire stone-age projectiles at precise velocities at pig carcasses (a pig’s skin and ribs are believed to be roughly as tough as a Neanderthal’s). When he stabbed a pig carcass with the force of a thrust spear, Churchill found that the pig’s ribs “were busted to hell. The high kinetic energy had caused a lot of damage in the area.” But Shanidar 3 had a solitary rib puncture with no such damage.

(See pictures: Happy 200th Darwin Day!)

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