The team including scientists from Zurich's ETH university and Germany's Monrepos Archaeological Research Centre examined two 120,000-year-old skeletons of extinct fallow dear with hunting injuries which had been excavated from lake deposits in eastern Germany.
They then carried out ballistic tests on non-historical deer bones and artificial bone material to compare the damage done to the the injuries on the prehistoric deer skeletons, ETH said in a statement.
Among the tools used by the researchers was a hi-tech wooden spear devised by students working at the ETH's Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems. This spear was fitted with sensors including an accelerometer and a camera.
Scientists and trained martial arts practitioners used the weapons to strike the deer bones and artificial bone material at different forces.
Image: Eduard Pop, MONREPOS Archäologisches Forschungszentrum und Museum für menschliche Verhaltensevolution, Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Archäologie
By examining the results obtained by the sensors and looking at the patterns of damage, the team could determine that the Neanderthals did not throw their spears, but killed the deer at close range.
“Such confrontational ways of hunting require close cooperation between participants, and over time may have shaped important aspects of hominin biology and behaviour,” said the authors of the study published in the latest issue of Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Among the skills required for the close-range hunting were planning, camouflage and teamwork.
The fallow deer skeletons excavated in Germany contain the oldest known examples of animal injuries indisputably caused by hunting.
While there is evidence of hominid hunting going as far back as 400,000 years ago, the current study is the first to establish precisely how prehistoric wooden hunting devices were used.