So fashionable, even a caveman would wear it!
Neanderthals are often portrayed as grunting, carnivorous, dim-witted, club-wielding brutes with low foreheads. This popular perception has slowly changed in recent years. Researchers have uncovered information about these “cavemen,” which has caused a paradigm shift in our understanding of the now-extinct hominids.
Among other things, researchers now believe Neanderthals created more complex bone and stone tools, had the physical and cognitive ability to communicate in a spoken language similar to our own, were good parents, and even expressed themselves culturally and artistically.
A recent discovery indicates they also likely created and wore hand-fashioned jewelry. This finding further supports the theory that Neanderthals were far more sophisticated than previously believed.
Researchers have identified eight eagle talons, specifically white-tailed eagle talons, from an old dig showing purposeful marks and notches. The marks infer the talons were strung together as part of a necklace or bracelet.
University of Kansas anthropology professor David Frayer called the discovery, “Absolutely stunning. It fits in with this general picture that’s emerging that Neanderthals were much more modern in their behavior.”
The talons are part of a 100-year-old excavation of a well-known sandstone cave in Croatia. All of the unearthed objects came from the same layer and were dated as 120,000 to 130,000 years old.
The collection was archived when the dig took place 100 years ago. The curator of the Croatian Natural History Museum, Davorka Radovčić, recently re-examined objects from the site, including the talons from at least three different eagles. He discovered something no one had seen before. The talons in the set showed signs of being worked by human hands. They exhibit cuts and notches, as well as polishing and abrasion, which could not have been made naturally while the eagles were alive.
“It’s one of those things that just appeared out of the blue,” said Frayer. “It’s so unexpected and it’s so startling, because there’s just nothing like it until very recent times to find this kind of jewelry.”
Researchers surmise the eagles were captured with well-planned, perhaps ceremonial, methods. Fashioning talons into jewelry also suggests a level of abstract thinking previously thought unavailable to Neanderthals. The effort required to capture eagles supports the idea their talon jewelry held some symbolic meaning. Symbolic thought is a step up from the kind of thinking required for simple decoration.
“It really shows a level of technical sophistication, too,” Frayer said. “It’s associated with fossils that people don’t like to consider to be human.”
Neanderthals lived on the European continent approximately 80,000 years before what we currently consider to be the time “humans” arrived. They continued to live for a period concurrent with humans before becoming extinct. They allegedly interbred with humans, and no doubt passed on some of their own cultural traits.
Did Neanderthals create this jewelry because they admired and wished to “possess” the physical traits and hunting skills of eagles? Did they use the eagles to hunt, practicing an early form of falconry?
At this point we don’t yet know, but we can surmise their attitudes and beliefs concerning eagles were more than casual admiration.