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Neanderthals Just Sat There And Watched Us Go Pew Pew Pew With Our Cool Bow And Arrow

Museum educator Sabine Liener-Kraft looks at the replica of a skull of a Neanderthal a day before the official opening of the new State Museum of Archeology in Chemnitz, Germany, 14 May 2014. About 6,000 exhibits shed light on 300,000 years of human history. The conversion of the building from a shopping center into the museum cost 31 million Euro with another 13,5 million for the permanent exhibition. Photo: HENDRIK SCHMIDT/dpa | usage worldwide (Photo by Hendrik Schmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Hendrik Schmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images|

Pictured: A big dummy.

Last year, researchers discovered the remains of anatomically modern humans in a cave in Southern France, dated to about 54,000 years ago, which pushes back the presence of humans in Europe about 10,000 years earlier than previously thought. That same team, returning for another season of field research, has now published another paper detailing what they identify as arrowheads in that early human settlement, which would mark the earliest appearance of the bow and arrow outside Africa. I find this mildly interesting, if certainly fun enough for the researchers, who demonstrated the points were likely arrowheads and not spear tips by recreating and doing archery with them. However, here's the part I find really interesting:

[The cave] records a reference archaeological succession, for it contains all of the phases currently known for the last Neanderthal societies ... this earliest migration of humans into Neanderthal territories is associated with the mastery of bow. We also show that these highly controlled technologies were unknown locally among Neanderthals groups...

That's right. This cave was, as my colleague once wrote in a small local daily paper, "the hottest real estate in Europe." The researchers found at least four separate layers of habitation: Neanderthal, human, Neanderthal again, then human again. Two of those layers were separated by just one year, more or less confirming direct contact between the two hominid groups, which would occur sporadically for the next few thousand years until the Neanderthals disappear from the archeological record about 40,000 years ago. It's unclear exactly what happened to them, but a leading theory is that they were simply outcompeted by humans and our fancy technology. And the implication in this new paper is that Neanderthals absolutely saw us using bows and arrows, yet still did not use them themselves. Idiots!

Neanderthals, our closest relatives, who split off from us some hundreds of thousands of years ago, had their own tools, but no known projectile weapons like arrows or spear-throwers. This may have been for cultural reasons, or, in the polite parlance of science, a result of cognitive limitations. I don't have to be polite, though. They saw us taking down tasty deer and elk from a safe distance with our extremely cool and useful archery, and still couldn't figure it out? That's big-time evolutionary loser behavior. Durr, I'm a Neanderthal, I'm going to keep poking my prey with a long sharp stick even though that guy over there is shooting them from far enough away that they don't even recognize him as a threat.

If you're a Neanderthal reader who takes offense to this characterization, you may register your outrage by emailing our complaint line. Oh wait. You can't email us, because you're probably too stupid to use email, and you're also extinct. Scoreboard!

As for you, human reader, the blood of geniuses flows through your veins. I think you should take a little victory lap this morning, for belonging to the only species that was smart enough to invent the bow and arrow, agriculture, and the Nintendo Switch, and to subscribe to Defector.com.

Ah, but there's a coda to this story. Neanderthals didn't just disappear. Unless you're of sub-Saharan African descent, Neanderthal DNA makes up a few percentage points of your genome. That's right: We had sex with them. This might have been a tricky courtship, because they had a limited vocal range and certainly didn't speak the same language. So how'd it happen? Researchers are too busy to wonder, but maybe should, if we didn't impress hot Neanderthal babes with our sick archery skills. Maybe the bow and arrow helped us conquer the world and get laid.

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