Neanderthals Adorned Themselves With Raptor Feathers
September 19, 2012

Feathers Were Used By Neanderthals For Decorative Ornaments And Jewelry

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Neanderthal men likely adorned themselves with bird feathers, a new study suggests.

The researchers believe the feathers were stripped from the remains of birds and worn as decorative ornaments or jewelry, a theory that further suggests early hominids had a strong sense of tradition and culture.

The scientists studied bird bones found at European sites used by Neanderthal man, and discovered that bird wings containing large feathers had consistently been cut and carved by the inhabitants.

Gibraltar Museum researchers Clive Finlayson and Kimberly Brown said the study´s findings provide further evidence that Neanderthals´ thinking ability was similar to that of modern man.

The research even suggests that Neanderthal man had a preference for dark feathers selected from birds of prey and corvids, such as ravens and rooks.

The researchers said they are not suggesting that humans learned the practice of adorning themselves from Neanderthals, noting that many tribal people throughout history have also engaged in the practice. In fact, feather ornamentation could even date back to a common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals.

Finlayson, Brown and colleagues from Spain, Canada and Belgium examined a database of 1,699 ancient sites across Eurasia, comparing data on birds at sites used by humans and those that were not.

The team discovered a distinct association between raptor and corvid remains and sites that had been used by humans. Further analysis of bird bones found at Neanderthal sites in Gibraltar, including Gorham's and Vanguard cave, revealed that "the Neanderthals had cut through and marked the bones,” Finlayson told BBC News.

What were they cutting? Wing bones, particularly those attached to primary feathers, Finlayson said.

"We saw the cut-marks on bird bones at one cave, and then started seeing them in others. I think it's a common aspect to the caves in this rock,” said study co-author Jordi Rosell, from Rovira i Virgili University in Spain.

"The wings make up less than 20% of the weight of the body of those birds“¦there is no meat in the wings - they were not consuming these animals,” said study co-author Juan Jose Negro, director of the Donana Biological Station in Seville, Spain.

"The only explanation left is the use of those long feathers."

The study found that the Neanderthals appeared to prefer birds with dark or black plumage, including ravens, crows, rooks, magpies, jackdaws, several types of eagle and vulture, red and black kites, kestrels and falcons, the researchers said.

"What all this suggests to us is that Neanderthals had the cognitive abilities to think in symbolic terms. The feathers were almost certainly being used for ornamental purposes, and this is a quite unbelievable thing to find,” said Finlayson at this year's Calpe conference in Gibraltar.

Neanderthals have long been portrayed as low-intelligence brutes for most of the past century. Their extinction some 30,000 years ago has been seen as the predictable result of competing against Homo sapiens -- a more intelligent and resourceful human species.

However, in recent years, Neanderthals have seen their image rehabilitated amid growing evidence that their skills have been underestimated.

"I think this is the tip of the iceberg," said Finlayson.

"It is showing that Neanderthals simply expressed themselves in media other than cave walls. The last bastion of defense in favor of our superiority was cognition."

Neanderthals, who lived across Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia in Pleistocene times, may have been "different", but "their processes of thinking were obviously very similar,” Finlayson said

Dr. Negro noted that while there is no way to know how the feathers were put to use, "current uses of feathers typically involve the same species. If you think of the Plains Indians in North America, they put those feathers in headdresses and they are signaling. They are signaling power and status. Perhaps the Neanderthals were using feathers in the same way.”

The research was published September 17 in the journal PLOS One.