He regularly asks students to throw spears at him

Monday, January 28th, 2019

Anthropologists have long concluded that Neanderthals used their thick, heavy spears only at close range, because the academics could only throw those spears about 10 meters. What happens when athletes throw Neanderthal spears?

On a very cold January morning, in an athletic field in central England, Annemieke Milks watched as six javelin-throwers hurled a pair of wooden spears. Their target was a hay bale, “meant to approximate the kill zone of a large animal like a horse,” says Milks, an archeologist at University College London. And their spears were replicas of the oldest complete hunting weapons ever found — a set of 300,000-year-old, six-and-half-foot sticks found in a mine at Schöningen, Germany.

The athletes managed to throw their replicas over distances of 65 feet. That’s a far cry from modern javelin feats — the world record for men, set in 1996, is 323.1 feet. But it’s twice what many scientists thought that primitive spears were capable of. It suggests that, contrary to popular belief, early spear-makers — Neanderthals, or perhaps other ancient species like Homo heidelbergensis — could probably have hunted their prey from afar.


“The 10-meter distance was repeated over and over again, but not backed up with much evidence.” It came from an influential ethnographic review that considered the spear-throwing skills of many modern populations, but didn’t include adept groups like the Tasmanian and Tiwi peoples of Australia. And it was bolstered by studies and anecdotal reports in which spears were thrown by anthropologists—hardly a decent stand-in for a skilled Neanderthal hunter.

For example, John Shea, an archeologist at Stony Brook University tells me that he regularly takes his students into an athletic field and asks them to throw replica Schöningen spears at him. “If they hit me, I pledge to give them $20,” he says. “I’ve been doing this ‘experiment’ for 25 years and I’ve neither got so much as a scratch on me nor parted with any cash. The spears come sailing in so low and slow I can usually just step sideways out of the way, bat them away with a stick or, if I am feeling really cocky, catch them in mid-air.”

A German sport scientist and javelin-thrower named Hermann Rieder had more success: In a small study, he managed to hit targets from around 16 feet away and suggested that the spears were useful weapons at longer distances.


It’s sometimes said that heavy spears would slow mid-flight and hit their targets with dull thuds. But Milks found that the replicas slowed very little, and landed with a kinetic wallop comparable to projectiles launched by bows or spear-throwing tools.

But Steve Churchill, an anthropologist from Duke University, notes that the javelin-throwers only hit their target a quarter of the time, and less so at the furthest distances. He’s also unclear as to how many of those “hits” would have been strong enough to, say, penetrate an animal’s hide. In his own experience (and he freely admits that he’s not a trained thrower), Schöningen replicas wobble a lot and tend to strike targets at glancing angles. They might fly far, in other words, but do they fly true? “This is a very good study,” he says, but “I don’t see a lot here to convince me that the Schöningen spears were effective long range weapons.”

Milks counters that professional javelin-throwers go for distance, and aren’t trained to hit targets. Despite that, some of them clearly got the sense that the heavy spears behave unusually, vibrating along their axis and flexing on impact. The more experienced athletes compensated for this by putting spin on the spears. “That brought home how important it is to use skilled throwers,” Milks says. “What I really want to do now is to go to hunter-forager groups and have them show us these spears are capable of. They use spears from age 6, which is something I can’t replicate with javelin athletes.”


  1. Kirk says:

    Theory should always be based on practice and practical knowledge. Espouse your theories without either, and you’re risking good odds that your theory will prove erroneous.

    I’m kinda surprised that none of these guys actually went out and looked at the practical issues of this stuff, before–I’ve always assumed that they did, and now I’m going to have to question more of what these fine gentlemen have told me, over the years. Not to mention, go digging for more of the basis of things when they pronounce so assuredly on an issue.

    This reminds me of the historical debate about the Roman Legions having marched in step or not. To me, as someone with a fairly decent exposure to practical foot drill in large formations, the idea that they didn’t is ‘effing ludicrous. Yet, there are people out there who will argue passionately that nobody in antiquity marched in step, and that such a thing is an artifact of the late 1500s, under Maurice of Orange.

    There’s a lot we simply do not know, because it has long since been forgotten. Another question I’ve always had is why the Romans and others in antiquity did not use an atlatl to increase force and accuracy in their spear-casts… To the best of my research, they didn’t. Why the hell not?

  2. Earplugs says:

    What “historical debate” about the Roman Legions marching in step? It’s explicitly mentioned by Vegetius.

    What on earth are you talking about?

  3. Lu An Li says:

    Neanderthals did not throw spears. They used them as thrusting weapons. A group of Neanderthals approach a trapped animal from all directions at once stabbing away. Hoping to strike the anal opening and cause death by loss of blood.

    Neanderthal remains show injuries identical with that of the rodeo cowboy. Working close proximity, very dangerous at that, to large animals.

  4. Kirk says:


    Kindly show citations, because I could never find that bit of information anywhere in my reading of Vegetius. Also, there are a lot of re-enactors out there who will be delighted to hear that someone has finally solved the question.

    What you’re going to find when you go back and look for an exact cite is that Vegetius was extremely vague, and there’s nothing in any extant existing literature that details things like “in step” and precisely which foot the Romans stepped off on. One rather gets the impression that Vegetius was never a practical man, like a centurion or a drill master–He was of the officer class, and likely had all of that handed off to him.

    I know I’m on solid ground, unless recent research has turned something new up and I’ve missed it, because I did a deep dive into the literature and research back in the 2000s in a futile attempt to answer this very question for a research project. Hell, nobody can even agree that they marched in step, let alone which foot they stepped off on.

    And, yes, I think they had to have marched in step, because I simply can’t see how they could have performed the complex evolutions that the legion’s tactics and operations would have required without doing so. But, as I say, nobody has any real unequivocal proof of the matter. If you find some, let me know, because there are going to be a bunch of really interested people who study the Roman army that will love to hear how they missed all that.

  5. earplugs says:

    I’ll admit, I didn’t realize that “marched in step” meant “lockstep”. In that context, no, Vegetius did not say they did. Perhaps you can admit the ambiguity and forgive the error.

    However, you seem to misapprehend my major emphasis here. It wasn’t my personal position on whether or not the Romans marched in “lockstep”. It was about this “historical debate”.

    Thus you don’t need my citations: as you already indicated, you undoubtedly know the two places in Book 1 of De re militari that I was referring to. Just as you know that they don’t speak to this particular question.

    I do, however, need yours: where is this “historical debate”?

    My point was that I’ve never come across it and I was surprised to hear of its existence. I thought maybe you had actual sources & authorities. If you don’t, OK.

    If what you were really saying is that re-enactors argue about this on the internet, oh, OK, certainly, we can do that.

    Because in that case, yes, I agree with you. Not just because strenuously arguing that the Romans didn’t has zero basis in historical evidence to my knowledge, but because if someone is going to claim that Maurice of Nassau, of all people, actually invented it, gee.

    Who was he emulating, again? And, if in emulating them, he invented “lockstep” the high likelihood is just that re-invented it for the same reasons they did it but just never managed to record it.

    Essentially, I have trouble envisioning any serious scholar taking such a position. If it’s just amateur historians yelling at each other online, I get it.

    I just don’t think of that as “historical debate”

  6. Kirk says:

    Earplugs, you don’t know shit about marching or movements if you don’t grasp why this is a serious question, and also why it’s controversial.

    Lockstep isn’t even the same thing–That’s derived from penal practices of the 19th Century, and was meant to serve as a means of moving shackled prisoners effectively. Derived from military practice, yes, but the term is not used at all in any drill manuals I’ve ever studied.

    The reason why it’s important? Again, to attempt to understand just how the Roman tactical system worked, which in turn leads to understanding their battles, both won and lost. It’s not a trivial issue–Without those formations moving in step, and having a means of keeping that steady cadence as they moved and maneuvered, it’s damn hard to understand how it all worked. We still don’t know, for example, how they exchanged the front line of legionaries in battle, either–We know they did, we know that the centurions and other officers used whistles to signal the exchanges, but the exact means by which they did so? Unknown; because that “minor little detail” did not get recorded and transmitted down to us. Like so much of human interaction–Today’s posting of the 1st of February 2019 is another perfect example. In a thousand year’s time, will anyone know precisely how we arranged our traffic system? Would that be important to anyone besides time travelers that wanted to blend in, seamlessly? Perhaps, perhaps not–But, you never know when you’re going to be another Maurice, and be forced to re-invent the wheel for another application.

  7. earplugs says:

    No, I don’t know anything about “marching” or “movements”. Did I ever claim or imply otherwise?

    I do know that you’re an absolute jerk who is more interested in abusing people on the internet than establishing actual knowledge.

    Because I never remotely said it wasn’t a serious question–I simply stated I never came across it in actual scholarship.

    Apparently you never did either, and my guess was absolutely correct: this isn’t “historical debate” it’s a bunch of grognards screaming at each other and competing to be the biggest blowhard.

    I wasn’t in the military and honestly don’t have tremendous interest in military matters. I don’t doubt their importance, but do I doubt the relevance of this sort of discourse.

    Remember: I *agreed* with you that people who argued that Romans did not do (whatever that is specifically to you, but I doubt your ironclad technical terminology has much acceptance outside of your internet angst-fest circles) were likely wrong. In fact, my point was implying that the absolute belief that they didn’t, regardless of veracity, was methodologically baseless.

    And yet here you are deriding and belittling me.

    OK. You’ve won. You are the better warrior “historian” on the internet.

    I’ve been conquered. Perhaps you can go back to plying your craft on military “history” forums, because that’s certainly where you’ve learned everything you know.

  8. Kirk says:

    So… earplugs now acknowledges he doesn’t actually know anything about the subject, after he states the following in his first post:

    “What “historical debate” about the Roman Legions marching in step? It’s explicitly mentioned by Vegetius.

    What on earth are you talking about?”

    You attack me, you’re going to get it back in kind, good and hard, friendo. You could have been polite, and asked for an explanation if you didn’t understand something I wrote. Instead, you chose to stick your ignorant nose into a tent, and now it’s been bitten off. Tough shit. Grow a pair, and learn to read for comprehension–And not make spurious claims you can’t back up.

    “…explicitly mentioned by Vegetius.” my ass–If that were true, you’ve got the only copy of him extant that addresses this specific topic. Worth some money, that would be, to the right people. I presume you’ve got some unknown palimpsest handed down the generations through your family?

    Or, alternatively, you’re full of shit.

  9. Earplugs says:

    In this entire exchange you have not only failed to demonstrate any sort of “historical debate” whatsoever, but rather have unceasingly engaged in utterly unconstrained personal antagonism.

    I expressed incredulity at your statement that this extremely specific question was a matter of “historical debate”, because “March in step” is simply not the unambiguous term you insist it is.

    Indeed, when you later explained with more detail what was specifically meant, I APOLOGIZED and tried to proceed with what I thought you meant–”lockstep”.

    Because, no, Vegetius doesn’t address THAT. He does mention marching at certain standard uniform speeds in exact ranks. Which is what I thought was meant by “March in step”

    That started a complete torrent of abuse that you continue even now–to the point where you are alleging all sorts of absurdities. I don’t have a secret version of Vegetius and I was never challenging your statement that the Romans “marched in step” BECAUSE I EXPLICITLY AGREED WITH IT.

    I disputed the “historical debate” and amidst all your rage and bravado you’ve done exactly zero towards establishing it.

    Instead you’ve revealed some rather serious personal problems I am ill-suited to help you resolve.

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