Research Right on TargetGAMBIER, Ohio (December 20, 2010)
The Brown Family Environmental Center recently turned into an unusual launch site for the testing of surface-to-air missiles, circa 300,000 BC.
Kenyon-made replicas of Neanderthal spears pierced the air as anthropology student David Hohl '12 of Pinedale, Wyoming, and Associate Professor of Anthropology Bruce Hardy sought to determine if Neanderthals, in pursuit of prey, threw these spears from a distance or simply thrust them into their quarry at close range. "The idea behind the testing was to determine if Neanderthals had long-distance throwing weapons," Hardy said.
The throwing vs. thrusting debate has raged in academic circles since the discovery of the artifacts in Germany in 1999. The reputation of the much-maligned Neanderthals hangs in the balance. Were they savvy big-game hunters or more simple-minded scavengers? "We're trying to see if these spears could have been thrown at a great enough distance to be effective hunting weapons," said Hohl, whose independent study assumed the task. "If that proves to be the case, it demonstrates a pretty complex hunting strategy and gives us more latitude in thinking about the Neanderthal diet and survival skills."
To systematically test the thrown-spear hypothesis, Hohl and Hardy built a ballista (a nearly 10-foot long Roman crossbow) that shot the spears at a target of ballistics gel (to test penetration) draped in cowhide acquired from a local butcher. They built the ballista to cover a flight of 20 to 25 meters, cited in the literature as a suitable distance for long-range hunting. "If the spears are flung with enough force and velocity to puncture the cowhide, it is reasonable to assume the Neanderthals used them for hunting from a distance," Hardy said. "Otherwise, their usefulness was likely limited to thrusting from close range."
Hohl and Hardy spent much of the semester building the ballista and carving three replica spears from sycamore trees. They enlisted Associate Professor of Physics Paula Turner to record velocity with a high-speed camera. A small band of colleagues and friends braved frigid temperatures recently to watch the experiment in which the cowhide proved impenetrable. In another test, however, the spears easily poked through sheepskin. "We clearly showed that these spears were effective as long-range projectiles for thin-skinned animals, but not for thick-skinned," Hardy said.
Hohl logged the results of the spear launches, recording velocity, force and launch angle. He is compiling data for possible submission to an academic journal. "Although the project addressed an important academic question, it has been a lot of fun," he said. "I got to play with some neat toys and shoot things in the air."