Insight into competitive advantage of modern humans over Neanderthals

Earliest European modern humans were equipped with projectile weapons

Apparently, Neanderthals and modern humans coexisted in Europe for at least 5,000 years. A genetic study of these two species suggests that the density of modern human sites during this period is higher than that of Neanderthal occupations. However, little is known about why modern humans could increase their population size after migrating to Europe and successfully occupy new territories, while autochthonous Neanderthals went extinct ~40,000 years ago.

An Italian and Japanese research team found the first evidence for mechanically delivered projectile weapons in Europe dating to 45,000–40,000 years ago. The research, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution (Paper Title: The earliest evidence for mechanically delivered projectile weapons in Europe), date back the earliest evidence of projectile technology in Europe of about 20,000 years. The spearthrower and bow-and-arrow technologies allowed modern humans to hunt more successfully than Neanderthals and may have been one of the factors depriving Neanderthals of a chance to recover their population.

The research team includes 17 scientists from Italy and Japan, coordinated by the archaeologists Katsuhiro Sano (Center for Northeast Asian Studies, Tohoku University) and Adriana Moroni (Department of Environment, Earth and Physical Sciences, University of Siena), and the paleoanthropologist Stefano Benazzi (Department of Cultural Heritage, University of Bologna). They studied 146 crescent-shaped backed pieces (also referred to as lunates or segments) retrieved from the Uluzzian culture of Grotta del Cavallo (Southern Italy), the first Upper Paleolithic culture developed by modern humans in Europe. “Similar backed pieces have been observed in East Africa, although there is no archaeological evidence indicating a route from East Africa into Europe. To better understand the differences in the Uluzzian from previous lithic traditions, as well as the significance of the emergence of this new culture in Europe, it was crucial to identify the function of the backed pieces”, said Adriana Moroni.

Fi. 1. An Uluzzian hunter using a bow and arrows. Microscopic and morphometric analysis of Uluzzian backed pieces (lunates) from Grotta del Cavallo, southern Italy, dated between ~45,000 and ~40,000 years ago indicates that modern humans used these small lithics as hunting weapons and delivered them mechanically using a bow or a spearthrower. © S. Ricci

The backed pieces were macroscopically and microscopically analyzed using a Hirox digital microscope and results were compared with use-wear patterns on experimental samples. Through this analysis, diagnostic impact fractures and microscopic impact linear traces were found on numerous backed pieces, demonstrating that they were used as hunting weapons. “The diagnostic impact fractures showed the similar patterns of experimental samples delivered by a spearthrower and a bow, but significantly different from those observed on throwing and thrusting samples”, said Katsuhiro Sano. “Modern humans migrating into Europe equipped themselves with mechanically delivered projectile weapons, such as a spearthrower-dart or a bow-and-arrow, which higher impact energy hunting strategy offers modern humans subsistence advantage over Neanderthals”, concluded Sano.

Fig. 2. View of Grotta del Cavallo.

Notwithstanding, Fouriertransform-infrared (FTIR) spectromicroscopy of residues on several pieces demonstrate that the backed pieces were hafted using a complex adhesive, including ochre, tree gum, and beeswax, which stabilized the hafting. “Comparison with FTIR spectroscopy analyses of several red deposit and soil samples recovered from Grotta del Cavallo ruled out organic contaminants from the burial environment and confirmed the presence of ochre as a mixture of silicates and iron oxides”, said Chiaramaria Stani (Elettra-Sincrotrone Trieste).

Fig. 3. A backed piece with an impact fracture from Grotta del Cavallo. The impact fracture demonstrates that this small stone artifact was used as a hunting weapon. © K. Sano

“As the advanced hunting strategy is straightforwardly related to a competitive advantage, this study offered important insight to understand the reasons for the replacement of Neanderthals by modern humans”, said Stefano Benazzi, Principal Investigator of the ERC project n.724046 – SUCCESS ( aiming at understanding when modern humans arrived in Southern Europe, the biocultural processes that favoured their successful adaptation and the final cause of Neanderthal extinction.

Fig. 4. Residues on a backed piece from Grotta del Cavallo. © C. Stani


  • Italian and Japanese research team found the first evidence for mechanically delivered projectile weapons from the Uluzzian modern human culture dating to 45–40,000 years ago in southern Italy.
  • Through systematic use-wear analysis of Uluzzian backed pieces, we indicate their use as hunting armatures, along with FTIR analysis, to reveal the occurrence of hafting with complex adhesive.
  • By comparison with experimental and ethnographic data, we show that these pieces could only be associated with projection using a spearthrower or a bow.
  • The findings provide important insight into a competitive advantage that modern humans possessed over Neanderthals.


The Uluzzian is the first Upper Paleolithic culture developed by modern humans in Europe, based on two deciduous teeth discovered at Grotta del Cavallo attributed to Homo sapiens. The Uluzzian culture exhibits typical modern features characterized by the presence of ornaments, bone implements, coloring substances, and crescent-shaped backed pieces made on small blades or bladelets. These crescent-shaped backed pieces are a hallmark of the Uluzzian and exhibit no techno-morphological link to the Mousterian or Initial Upper Paleolithic cultures in Europe prior to the Uluzzian.


Grotta del Cavallo, excavated by A. Palma di Cesnola and P. Gambassini between 1963 and 1986, is a pivotal site for the Uluzzian because its stratigraphic sequence includes three main Uluzzian layers, namely from EIII (archaic Uluzzian), EII-I (evolved Uluzzian), to D (final Uluzzian), sandwiched by the tephra Y-6 at 45.5 ± 1.0 ka (45,500 ± 1,000 years ago) and Y-5 (Campanian Ignimbrite) at 39.85 ± 0.14 ka (39,850 ± 140 years ago).


Katsuhiro Sano1*, Simona Arrighi2, 3, Chiaramaria Stani4, Daniele Aureli3, 5, Francesco Boschin3, Ivana Fiore6, Vincenzo Spagnolo3, Stefano Ricci3, Jacopo Crezzini3, Paolo Boscato3, Monica Gala6, Antonio Tagliacozzo6, Giovanni Birarda4, Lisa Vaccari4, Annamaria Ronchitelli3, Adriana Moroni3 and Stefano Benazzi2, 7

 1Center for Northeast Asian Studies, Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan

2Department of Cultural Heritage, University of Bologna, Ravenna, Italy

3Dipartimento di ScienzeFisiche, della Terra e dell’Ambiente, UR Preistoria e Antropologia, Universitàdegli Studi di Siena, Siena, Italy

4Elettra-Sincrotrone Trieste S.C.p.A., Trieste, Italy

5UMR 7041, équipeAnTET, Université de Paris X-Nanterre, Paris, France

6Bioarchaeological Service, Museo delleCiviltà. MuseoPreistoricoEtnografico “Luigi Pigorini”, Rome,Italy

7Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany

Workshop “The dynamics of the climate in the last glacial-interglacial cycle”, Bologna, 17-18 June 2019

 The first meeting of the CNR  Working Group on the Dynamics of Paleoclimate focused on the history and dynamics of climate during the last 150 k-years. Federica Badino presented: “L’impatto degli Heinrich Events sugli ecosistemi terrestri: individuazione di proxies paleoecologici e sedimentologici lacustri in Nord Italia e analisi delle loro serie temporali ad alta risoluzione

XXIII AAI Conference – Padova, 4-6 September 2019

Dr Eugenio Bortolini presenting “assessing biological and cultural admixture in the Etruscan-Celtic population of Monterenzio Vecchio and Monte Bibele (Bologna-Italy) @AAI2019 @eu_bortolini
Dr Gregorio Oxilia presenting “Earliest evidence of Focal Cemento-Osseous Dysplasia in the Late Upper Palaeolithic” @ AAI 2019 – Padua



Dr Rita Sorrentino presenting “The modern human talus affected by cultural and behavioral factors”.

Meeting “Ambiente ed archeologia dei Colli Berici e delle Valli di Fimon”, 1st March 2019, Padova

The Berici Hills and, in particular the Fimon Valleys, represent an extraordinary archive of the Late Pleistocene environmental, climate and Middle to Late Palaeolithic human history in north-eastern Italy. The multidisciplinary nature of this meeting promoted knowledge exchange between humanities and other scientific domains (e.g., geology, archaeology, paleoecology, zooarchaeology).