Neanderthals liked birds. They ate doves and choughs, and unlike modern humans, they hunted birds of prey as well. Yet there are indications that at least in southern Europe, over tens of thousands of years, Neanderthals may have shared our latter-day sense of awe of the eagle.
Rationally there’s no reason to esteem an eagle more than a pigeon and to glorify the one as a national emblem of the great and mighty United States while despising the other as aviating vermin. But, according to recent findings, Neanderthals seem to have been able to systematically hunt the largest raptors they could, possibly by ambushing the birds as they unwarily scavenged carcasses. Neanderthals prized the feathers of ravens (shiny jet black) and raptors, and they removed talons from impressive birds such as golden and imperial eagles.
A paper published Friday in Science Advances by Antonio Rodriguez-Hidalgo of the Institute of Evolution in Africa, Madrid, and colleagues, expands on talon-stripping in Southern Europe to Spain, providing insight into the timescale of the practice. A talon with cut marks from an imperial eagle dating to 39,000 years ago was found in the Foradada cave in northern Spain, among 12 large raptor bones, mainly from eagle feet.
Altogether around southern Europe, 23 raptor talons altogether have been found, which are thought to have served for personal ornamentation or symbolism among Neanderthals, at least in their later stages prior to extinction, the team says. The Spanish claw is the most recent. (None have been found in more northerly Neanderthal sites.)
Based on indications that Neanderthals prized the feathers of ravens (shiny jet black) and raptors, and the removal of talons from impressive birds such as golden and imperial eagles, the authors postulate that Neanderthals, at least the ones in southern Europe from 130,000 onwards, were capable of symbolic behavior.
There being no meat to speak of on the avian lower extremities, the thinking is that the Neanderthals removed the mighty claws from the foot bones for some other purpose. Based on the human penchant for decking ourselves out in finery and feathers and pendants made from claws and fangs of impressive creatures, that purpose could have been symbolic, marking out its wearer.
That presupposes that the talons were removed for a non-alimentary purpose. In other words, the assumption is that the Neanderthals ate the bird but not its feet, so talons wouldn't have been amputated as part of the Paleolithic recipe.
It bears qualifying that some deem bird feet a delicacy. “We have recipes for chicken feet in Spain, and everyone love buffalo wings,” observes Antonio Rodriguez-Hidalgo – a reference to the discovery of a swan wing bone in an archaic human context in Qesem, Israel, indicating that ancient hominins were collecting feathers 420,000 years ago (presumably, though, not for roast feathers).
In any case, whether or not the Neanderthals ate the feet, obviously they didn't cut off the claws to consume them because who would do that. Then cut marks on the Spanish eagle talon indicate the isolated the claw for other use, the archaeologists explain.
Cherchez les Neanderthals
Cova Foradada was a nice cave near the sea, south of what is today Barcelona, just over a mile from the shoreline. Excavation indicates that the cave was sporadically occupied from the Upper Paleolithic.
The talon in Foradada is merely the latest in the Neanderthal-eagle-claw record, or to put it otherwise, it’s the most recent known use of talons for adornment.
Other indications of archaic couture may include feathers, use of which in the Levant may go back almost half a million years. Neanderthals are suspected of having prized raptor and raven feathers for adornment or symbolic purposes, and collecting talons is possibly another early sign of emerging behavioral modernity in their line.
Given recent upheavals in paradigms about human evolution, how certain can we be, that the indications of advanced cultural development in Middle Paleolithic Europe, and the talon use in Upper Paleolithic site of Cova Foradada, really are associated with Neanderthals?
Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens are thought to have split around 600,000 to 700,000 years ago, with our ancestors staying in Africa, while ancestral Neanderthals went north and evolved in Europe, where they soon split into Neanderthals in the west and Denisovans in the east. Leaving aside the simmering argument over whether all three were the same species (because they could and did interbreed), the fact is that the far and few identifiable hominin remains found in western and southern Europe have been Neanderthal.
Some scholars associate this kind of development with possible influence of Homo sapiens on the Neanderthals.
The two human species are thought to have split around 600,000 to 700,000 years ago, with our ancestors staying in Africa, while ancestral Neanderthals went north and evolved in Europe, where they soon split into Neanderthals in the west and Denisovans in the east.
Leaving aside the simmering argument over whether all three were the same species (because they could and did interbreed), the fact is that the far and few identifiable hominin remains found in western and southern Europe have been Neanderthal.
The late Stone Age in western Europe featured a unique stone and cultural industry known as the Châtelperronian, featuring elaborately knapped stone tools. Given that only Neanderthals were thought to exist in western Europe when the Châtelperronian was flourishing, the industry is thought to show the Neanderthals at their finest hour. Some though some suspect it may shows they were learning new techniques from the Homo sapiens arriving in Europe.
So first of all, Neanderthal bones have been found in the context of the Châtelperronian at exactly two sites: La Roche-à-Pierrot and the Grotte du Renne in France. That is not a huge sample and in late 2018 a paper came out arguing that there is no reliable evidence for a Neanderthal-Châtelperronian association at La Roche-à-Pierrot. If so, Neanderthal remains have been found in association with the Châtelperronian stone industry just once.
Second of all, Homo sapiens may have been spreading to Europe much, much earlier than originally thought. What many believe is a human jaw was found in Misliya Cave in Israel dating to 200,000 years ago and a human-type skull fragment found in Greece dates to 210,000 years ago.
But even if Homo sapiens began spreading to Europe earlier than thought, there is no proof that they were responsible for some Neanderthal renaissance.
“All arguments are not entirely closed. I am not sure that the early evidence of arrival of African hominids is always full proof (the Greek case being more problematic than the Israeli one), or that they were Homo sapiens as we currently define it, or that they were bearing symbolic behaviors as we currently understand it. Certainly, for the latter, there is no archaeological evidence,” paleoanthropologist Professor Erella Hovers of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a world expert on prehistoric archaeology and the Neanderthal, tells Haaretz.
“I think that Neanderthals did engage in symbolic behavior. I am curious as to why it was so low key in relation to that of moderns [modern humans] of the same time, but that is a different question,” Hovers adds.
Also, as Rodriguez-Hidalgo points out in favor of the advanced-Neanderthal hypothesis, there have been zero discoveries of Homo sapiens in association with the Châtelperronian, though absence of evidence is not evidence for absence.
At the bottom line, raptor talons may have been used for ornamentation or to capture the spirit of the eagle or whatever in the middle Paleolithic (found at six sites), and talons have been found at four Châtelperronian sites. Now the practice has been found just 39,000 years ago in Cova Foradada in the Upper Paleolithic. This argues for cultural continuity over tens of thousands of years and argues that Châtelperronian really was Neanderthal achievement, and so were the talon removers of Cova Foradada.
"Evidence that the Middle Palaeolithic in Europe is linked with one human species, Neanderthals, is the actual paradigm," Rodriguez-Hidalgo sums up. "The Homo sapiens remains in Apidima [Greece] is the interpretation of one fragmentary fossil, without clear context, and is only one. There are thousand bones of middle Palaeolithic sites in Europe with Neanderthal bones… I think there is much evidence to work with the hypothesis that Châtelperronian is the work of Neanderthals."