The Neanderthals had hunted prodigiously, feeding their growing populations for hundreds of thousands of years. But their technology was limited. So how did they do it?

A detailed forensic examination of ancient deer bones—and a reconstruction of spear-attacks on bones in modern ballistic gelatin—has provided the answer, according to a German team reporting in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

The bones were from two fallow deer that were killed around 120,000 years ago. The remains were unearthed in excavations around a lake surrounded by forests, the site of Neumark-Nord east of Leipzig. The bones were dug up in context from an interglacial lake landscape, with abundant traces of Neanderthal life.

The bones included more than 200 deer skeletons, in addition to 71 straight-tusked elephants, according to the paper. Most of them showed basic butchering techniques, where not all the parts were defleshed, and the animals were not disarticulated, according to the scientists.

Two of the skeletons showed wounds that made them stand out. They had puncture wounds: one had a puncture in the pelvis, the other in the neck.

Both holes showed traits confirming low-velocity entry, with circumference cracks around them. The wound had been made with a conical but sharp tip.

The team at first used a Dino-Lite PRO digital microscope with a 200x magnification, as well as a Lieca reflected-light microscope with a 32x magnification. They also assessed both wounds with micro-computed tomography to get into the details of the perforations.

The likely source of the wounds was clear: a low-velocity spear thrust. The likely weapon would resemble other wooden spears found at other Neanderthal sites around Europe, the researchers hypothesized. For the pelvis wound, it was likely made with a thrusting upward movement into the back hindquarters of the animal; for the neck, it could have been a horizontal attack, either parallel to the ground, or straight down, while standing over the fallen beast, according to the paper’s findings.

The team decided to test their hypothesis, using modern analogs to recreate the scene.

Fresh red deer bones from animals recently hunted in Germany were encased in ballistic gelatin. The spears were made from an aluminum shaft, with sensors, and a wooden tip that would mimic the dimensions of the suspected hunting weapon, according to the paper. The wood could not be from a yew tree, since it is a protected species under German law, so they used beech wood with a comparable hardness.

Then three men who were practiced weapons handlers (two with martial arts training and a third with prehistoric spear experience) tried their hand at thrusting into the bones, the scientists report.

The wounds that resulted matched, when compared with micro-CT scans of the ancient remains, they report.

Their conclusion: the Neanderthals used close-range hunting techniques on bigger animals by cooperating closely, driving the beasts into the water, and subduing them through other stratagems. 

“The Neumark-Nord data provide unambiguous evidence for Neanderthals surviving in the most densely forested phases of an interglacial, in which water bodies surrounded by a more varied vegetation acted as magnet locations for large herbivores,” they write. “This created opportunities for concealment of and observation by hunters and, eventually, the close-range kills implied by the identified trauma.”