Today, US pilots can kill people 11,000 kilometers away from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.. Every morning they get up, have breakfast with the family and move to their office near New York, from where they control unmanned aircraft capable of bombing distant countries like Iraq, Yemen or Afghanistan. After the day, they return home to help their children with homework or mow the lawn.
There is a before and after in the history of mankind. Someone, at some point, decided to make a weapon to kill at a distance. One day in 1995, while his team was digging in an open-pit coal mine in Schöningen, northern Germany, the archaeologist Hartmut Thieme came to this threshold of human evolution. On the ground pregnant with black ore, a dozen wooden spears appeared, carved by hand about 300,000 years ago to kill. They were, as Thieme announced, "The oldest complete hunting weapons used by humans".
The paleoanthropologist Juan Luis Arsuaga recalls his "exclamations of amazement" when he first contemplated the spears of Schöningen
That primitive armament, presumably elaborated by Neanderthals, has returned to life. The team of the archaeologist Annemieke Milks, University College London, has taken wood from red fir – a typical tree from northern Europe – and has carved with it exact replicas of Schöningen spears. In the German site, the first weapons appeared among the remains of 10 dismembered horses. In the British experiment, a group of six athletes has thrown their javelins to bales of straw, hitting from more than 20 meters. For Milks, it's a demonstration that Neanderthals could kill at a distance.
In his book The collar of the Neanderthal, the Spanish paleoanthropologist Juan Luis Arsuaga remembered his "exclamations of astonishment" when he visited the Schöningen mine in the cold January of 1997 and contemplated one of the spears apparently skewered in the fossilized pelvis of a horse. "400,000 years ago, groups of human hunters had to wait for herds of animals on the shores of a lake, perhaps protected by the morning mist. They would approach their prey, crawling through tall rushes, until they were in range and let loose a flurry of spears, "he hypothesized. "Each horse that they knocked down would provide the human group with hundreds of kilos of the meat they needed so much to survive in that cold environment."
"The fact that the first Neanderthals – and these were among the first Neanderthals – were able to design flying weapons suggests that they knew the ballistic properties well," says Annemieke Milks. The last Neanderthals were extinct about 40,000 years ago in the south of the Iberian Peninsula. And more and more research points out that they were not so different from the modern humans that took their place. A year ago, a team of researchers assured that the oldest rock art works – like a kind of ladder drawn 65,000 years ago in the cave of La Pasiega (Cantabria) – were the work of Neanderthals.
The Natural History Museum in London holds a small fragment of a wooden spear from a yew found in 1911 in Clacton-on-Sea, a coastal town in southern England. The object is about 400,000 years old. "We can not do a replica, because we do not know how its complete design was," explains Milks. "The spears of Schöningen are the oldest that are whole", he emphasizes. Its shape, with the heavier tip, suggests that they launched themselves as javelins, rather than being held as pikes.
Copies of the German spears measure 2.3 meters and weigh about 800 grams. In the archeologist's experiment, the weapons have reached speeds of up to 120 kilometers per hour, according to the results of the study, published today in the specialized magazine Scientific Reports. One in four shots hit the straw bale. It was a lethal weaponry. The Neanderthals were so human they could kill at a distance.