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26 July 2009
Human stabbed a Neanderthal, evidence suggests

The wound that ultimately 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 Duke University-led research. "What we've got is a rib injury, with any number of scenarios that could explain it," said Steven Churchill, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke. Churchill's analysis indicates the wound was from a thrown spear, and it appears that modern humans had a thrown-weapons technology 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."
     Churchill is the first author of a new report on the long-ago incident in what is now Iraq. He and four other investigators used a specially calibrated crossbow, copies of ancient stone points and numerous animal carcasses to make their deductions. 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. The wounded Neanderthal's rib had apparently started healing before he died. The researchers concluded 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 going on 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."
     While scientists have been unable to precisely date the remains, Shanidar 3 could have lived and died as recently as 50,000 years ago. If so, he could have encountered modern humans who were just returning to the area then after a 30,000-year hiatus. Looking back at this Paleolithic cold case, the study's authors evaluated all the possible causes of the rib wound with the aid of contemporary tools. Drawing from studies aimed at improving police and prison guard protection, the researchers concluded that the downward sweep of a knife could have the correct trajectory to produce Shanidar 3's rib injury. "Knife attacks generally involve a relatively higher kinetic energy," the report said. However, "whatever created that puncture was carrying fairly low kinetic energy at a low momentum," said Churchill. "That's consistent with a spear-thrower delivered spear." Another clue was the angle of the wound. Whatever nicked his rib entered the Neanderthal's body at about 45 degrees downward angle. That's consistent with the "ballistic trajectory" of a thrown weapon, assuming that Shanidar 3 - who was about 5 feet, 6 inches tall - was standing, Churchill said.

Sources: LiveScience, Yahoo! News, Red Orbit (21 July 2009)

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