If It Quacks Like a Homo Sapiens

Are eagle talons forever? On 'Neanderthal necklaces' and confusion about our prehistoric cousins and ourselves

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Cave art associated with Neanderthals in Spain
Cave art associated with Neanderthals in SpainCredit: Reuters
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

So, were Neanderthals us? Leaving the chin and beetling brow out of it, would we notice a Neanderthal in the room? And if one was there, could he paint a picture?

A year and some ago, it was stated: after a fashion, Neanderthals could make art. It had to be Neanderthals who drew on the walls of three caves in Spain 64,000 years ago, archaeologists determined. They determined that because absent skeletons associated with the drawings, which were dated to 64,000 years ago, Neanderthals were the only hominins in that part of Europe. Ergo, the artists had to be Neanderthal.

At the time Haaretz wondered whether if anything, the cave art could indicate that Homo sapiens had reached Europe earlier than thought, because modern humans were known to be capable of producing art, while nothing remotely similar had been found in a Neanderthal context.

True, the Spanish cave art seemingly predated the spectacular Homo sapiens-authored cave paintings found in France and Spain (and Indonesia) by over 10,000 years and more. But Homo sapiens had been proven to have artistic ability, while Neanderthals had not been so proven.

Now last week a new paper in the Journal of Human Evolution, “Still no evidence that Neanderthals created Iberian cave art” by Randall White et al., argued that the dating methodology had been flawed and the murals probably didn’t date to 64,000 years after all. They seem to have been made tens of thousands of years later, by which time Homo sapiens were frisking in the Spanish hills and the Neanderthals were extinct.

Evidently the truth is, we still don’t know as much as some think we do about Neanderthals. What we have is learned speculation, which can be all over the spectrum.

Are eagle talons forever?

40,000-year-old cave painting, Banda, IndiaCredit: SHEKHAR SRIVASTAVA / AP

Another recent discovery has been widely touted as a “Neanderthal necklace”. The actual discovery, also in Spain, was a single toe-bone from an imperial eagle with cut marks. The bone was also dated to the latter days of the Neanderthals in Europe, about 39,000 years ago. The marks on the bone indicated to the researchers that the majestic bird’s talon had been purposely severed because they had some use for it.

Makes sense. One doesn’t need to cut off the claws to eat a raptor’s feet any more than one has to hack off a cow’s hoof in order to eat a steak. You can throw the whole lot onto the barbecue and in case this needs further instructions: don’t swallow the hoof.

We aren’t wondering whether it was a modern human who snuck in and cut off the eagle’s claws. The inference is that the Neanderthals removed the eagle’s claw, fine. But that’s where the evidence ends. What they did with it is us filling in blanks. The archaeologists themselves suggest that maybe the Neanderthals made a pendant out of it, but while liking the theory of Neanderthal symbolic abilities, they cautiously do not state that Neanderthals wore jewelry, let alone necklaces made of eagle feet parts.

Maybe they did. Based on evidence of defeathering and a penchant for raptors, Neanderthals may have sported raven and eagle feathers, plausibly stuck into their dreads. Maybe they did this in order to feel like eagles, to pretend they were eagles, to scare the kids and keep them in line, because they respected the eagle, because they respected the eagle so much that after eating the rest of it they made use of its talons in order not to waste anything, or maybe they wanted to freak out other Neanderthals, or to stab that pesky neighbor in the cave next door in the eye. Perhaps there were times when a rock knife just wouldn’t do. In any case, we don’t know.

Arguably we remain mysteries to ourselves, as a glance at any agony column will tell you. There is a difference between technological prowess such as the ability to sequence our own DNA or reach the moon and psychological progress towards understanding the human condition. How well do you think your spouse and kiddies and neighbors understand you? How well do you understand them? How well do you understand yourself? How well do you think you might understand another species or subset who lived tens and hundreds of thousands of years ago?

War scene in a cave painting in Bhimbetka, India: Homo sapiens definitely had artistic ability.Credit: PRAKASH HATVALNE / AP

So were they just like us plus forehead ridges, or not? “If you think Neanderthals were stupid and primitive, it’s time to think again,” Science sums up a paper from the University of Colorado at Boulder (2014), which dwells, magnificently, on the archaeology of the human superiority complex. Others think morphological differences, at least, attest otherwise.

Regarding artistic ability, there is that pesky fact that no art has been found (yet) that is indisputably categorically either art or Neanderthal in origin, while modern humans spreading in Europe tens of thousands of years ago created murals so beautiful that they bring tears to the eye to this day.

Among other unwary claims: at least in some areas, Neanderthals decked themselves out with feathers and raptor, indicating cultural complexities and symbolism; they honored their dead; they were blond; they were red-headed; they gave us immunity to northern-hemisphere viruses and we gave them herpes; and at the other end of the rainbow, among the theories postulated for their final extinction are not only inability to adapt to climate change, but postulated cannibalism and incest - charges with which many anthropologists disagree.

The fact is that solid skeletal evidence associated with hominin industry in Europe is sparse. Neanderthal specimens number in the few hundreds, from over all of western Europe and some wonder if at least some of the fragments might have been Denisovan. Apropos of whom, the evidence for the eastern European-Asian offshoot of Neanderthals, the Denisovans, is even sparser – a few bones and teeth from Denisova Cave in Siberia and a bit of jaw in Tibet, that’s all, even though the Denisovans are suspected to have ranged all over Asia in their time.

Absent remains from other hominins in the Neanderthal range that are dated to the Neanderthal time-span, any evidence of hominin activity in western Europe during the Neanderthals’ span of hundreds of thousands of years is assumed to be Neanderthal in origin. That’s a reasonable inference but it isn’t proof.

And who says a given artwork from say, for the sake of argument, 40,000 years ago was made by a modern human or a Neanderthal? Maybe it was made by… both?

Genetic studies, which are also heatedly argued, indicate that Neanderthals, modern humans and Denisovans overlapped in territory and slept with one another. Neanderthals and Denisovans evidently didn’t reach sub-Saharan Africa; the upshot is that today, many generations after the intermixing, everyone who isn’t sub-Saharan African has between 1% to 3% Neanderthal DNA. Several extant peoples, notably but not only the Melanesians, have Denisovan DNA as well.

We assume that the absolutely, categorically stunning Aurignacian cave art in Europe was created by Homo sapiens. Neanderthals were extinct by then, weren’t they.

Yes and no. Yes, “pure” Neanderthals were gone. But modern humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans had been mixing. A body found in Peştera cu Oase, Romania from about 37,000 to 42,000 years ago had a Neanderthal ancestor just four generations back, genetic analysis concluded. That’s roughly the time frame in which symbolism and artistic ability seems to have exploded, resulting in paintings that leave us in awe to this day, statuettes and maybe even musical instruments.

So: was the “earliest art in Europe”, in that Spanish set of caves, indeed created by Homo sapiens – and was it pure Homo sapiens? Or, were the Chauvet masterpieces created by hybrids, Homo sapiens with a large Neanderthal component? Could interbreeding have led to some sort of hybrid vigor that resulted in artistic inspiration? We don’t know, and the “writing on the wall” of a Spanish set of caves indicates that we’d better all keep an open mind.



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