Washington: The wound that killed a Neanderthal man between 50,000 and 75,000 years was most likely caused by a thrown spear, the kind modern humans used but Neanderthals did not, according to the latest research.
"What we've got is a rib injury, with any number of scenarios that could explain it," said Steven Churchill, professor at Duke University.
"We're not suggesting there was a blitzkrieg, with modern humans marching across the land and executing the Neanderthals. I want to say that loud and clear," added Churchill.
But Churchill's analysis indicates the wound was from a thrown spear, and it appears that modern humans had weapons that could be thrown and Neanderthals 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," he said.
He and four other investigators used a specially calibrated crossbow, copies of ancient stone points and numerous animal carcasses to make their deductions.
Neanderthals, stoutly-built and human-like, lived at the same time and in the same areas as some modern humans before going extinct.
Anthropologists have been puzzling over the fate of Neanderthals for many years, proposing that perhaps they inter-bred with modern humans, failed to compete for food or resources, or were possibly hunted to extinction by humans.
While narrowing the range of possible causes for the Iraqi Neanderthal's wound, and raising the possibility of an encounter between humans and a now-extinct close cousin, the research does not definitively conclude who did it, or why.
The victim was one of nine Neanderthals 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, said a Duke release.
The wounded Neanderthal'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.
"People have been speculating about that rib injury for 50 years now," Churchill said. "Some said it was interpersonal violence. Others said it could have been an accident. Did it involve only Neanderthals? Now we, for the first time, have brought some experimental evidence to bear on these questions."
The report is now online in the Journal of Human Evolution.
First Published: Wednesday, July 22, 2009, 09:40