C.S.I. 50,000 years B.C.

Shanidar 3 Neandertal rib puncture wound and paleolithic weaponry:

Since its discovery and initial description in the 1960s, the penetrating lesion to the left ninth rib of the Shanidar 3 Neandertal has been a focus for discussion about interpersonal violence and weapon technology in the Middle Paleolithic. Recent experimental studies using lithic points on animal targets suggest that aspects of weapon system dynamics can be inferred from the form of the bony lesions they produce. Thus, to better understand the circumstances surrounding the traumatic injury suffered by Shanidar 3, we conducted controlled stabbing experiments with replicas of Mousterian and Levallois points directed against the thoraces of pig carcasses. Stabs were conducted under both high and low kinetic energy conditions, in an effort to replicate the usual impact forces associated with thrusting spear vs. long-range projectile weapon systems, respectively.

Analysis of the lesions produced in the pig ribs, along with examination of goat ribs subjected primarily to high kinetic energy stabs from an independent experiment, revealed consistent differences in damage patterns between the two conditions. In the case of Shanidar 3, the lack of major involvement of more than one rib, the lack of fracturing of the affected and adjacent ribs, and the lack of bony defects associated with the lesion (such as wastage, hinging, and radiating fracture lines) suggests that the weapon that wounded him was carrying relatively low kinetic energy.

While accidental injury or attack with a thrusting spear or knife cannot absolutely be ruled out, the position, angulation, and morphology of the lesion is most consistent with injury by a low-mass, low-kinetic energy projectile weapon. Given the potential temporal overlap of Shanidar 3 with early modern humans in western Asia, and the possibility that the latter were armed with projectile weapon systems, this case carries more than simple paleoforensic interest.

The last paragraph is elliptical, but the circumstantial evidence seems to be that this Neandertal male was injured by an anatomically modern human with weapons. No one tell R. Brian Ferguson! In any case, ScienceDaily has more more direct exposition:

But Churchill's analysis indicates the wound was from a thrown spear, and it appears that modern humans had a thrown-weapons technology and Neandertals didn't. "We think the best explanation for this injury is a projectile weapon, and given who had those and who didn't that implies at least one act of inter-species aggression."


The victim was one of nine Neandertals discovered between 1953 and 1960 in a cave in northeastern Iraq's Zagros Mountains. Now called "Shanidar 3," he was a 40- to 50-year-old male with signs of arthritis and a sharp, deep slice in his left ninth rib.

The wounded Neandertal's rib had apparently started healing before he died. Comparing the wound to medical records from the American Civil War, a time before modern antibiotics, suggested to the researchers that he died within weeks of the injury, perhaps due to associated lung damage from a stabbing or piercing wound.


Archaeological evidence also suggests that by 50,000 years ago humans, but not their Neandertal cousins, had developed projectile hunting weapons, Churchill said. They used spear throwers, detachable handles that connected with darts and spears to effectively lengthen a hurler's arm and give the missiles a power boost.

As human weapons technology advanced, Neandertals continued using long thrusting spears in hunting, which they probably tried -- for personal safety -- to keep between themselves and their prey instead of hurling them, Churchill added.


Those tests revealed the delivered energy needed to create similar wounds in the ribs of pig carcasses, which the researchers used as an approximation of a Neandertal's body.

The researchers also used measurements from a 2003 study to estimate the impact of using a thrusted rather than thrown spear, the kind of jabbing that Neandertals are thought to have employed. That produced higher kinetic energies and caused more massive rib damage than Shanidar 3 sustained.

Another clue was the angle of the wound. Whatever nicked his rib entered the Neandertal's body at about 45 degrees downward angle. That's consistent with the "ballistic trajectory" of a thrown weapon, assuming that Shanidar 3 -- who was about 5 feet, 6 inches tall -- was standing, Churchill said.

H/T: Anthropology.net.


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Neandertals continued using long thrusting spears in hunting, which they probably tried -- for personal safety -- to keep between themselves and their prey instead of hurling them, Churchill added

That doesn't compute in my book, because you can carry n spears and hurl n-1 thereof. You won't need more than one in your hands if you get charged. Although, it's possible neanders did not throw spears for some other reason, such as they sucked at it, or they didn't like the downsides of carrying more than one.

I've actually seen this - via google I've watched the movie Africa Addio, which, I will hereby warn people, is starkly violent and also distinctly chauvinist. I don't know if it's possible the spear-hunt scenes were somewhat staged, but even if staged they don't look terribly manipulated to me (one could use animal tranquilizers, etc). They sort of illustrate a point regardless.

If you're not unwilling to see some serious violence on animals, here's the link. It's actually quite stirring to witness the old-school hunt on the savanna (assuming it's more or less real). It starts with smaller stuff at 46:15, and attacks on elephants and hippos are seen a minute later.


There are people today who bow-hunt deer in the USA with stone and wood worked with their own hands (and I assume sinew bowstrings, but I don't remember that). I read a bit of a forum about it once.

By Eric Johnson (not verified) on 20 Jul 2009 #permalink

Any reason why they ruled out the possibility of an over-hand swing of a hand-held object? The ninth rib is pretty low, so a 45 degree downward trajectory seems plausible, especially if the recipient might be trying to avoid the blow.