A toe bone hints that Neandertals used eagle talons as jewelry

The find supports the idea that the hominids made symbolic ornaments


A toe bone of an ancient imperial eagle suggests that around 39,000 years ago, Neandertals removed eagle talons and used them as symbolic pendants, researchers say.

Jesus Giraldo Gutierrez/Shutterstock

An ancient eagle’s toe bone featuring stone tool incisions adds to evidence that Neandertals made pendants or other ornaments out of birds’ talons, researchers conclude in the Nov. 1 Science Advances.

Excavations in Foradada Cave, near northeastern Spain’s Mediterranean coast, have produced a roughly 39,000-year-old imperial eagle toe fossil. Stone tool marks on the bone were likely made when someone removed a talon from the bird’s foot, say archaeologist Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo of Madrid’s Institute of Human Evolution in Africa and colleagues. Neandertals have been linked to the style of stone artifacts found in the cave, the scientists add.

Only 12 bones from imperial eagles and other birds of prey, including seven toe bones and a talon, were found in the cave. No signs of burned sediment or cooking areas turned up, suggesting that these creatures were sought for talons and not as food, the scientists say.

Eagle toe bone
This eagle toe bone bears stone tool marks indicating that Neandertals in what’s now Spain made body ornaments out of talons, a study concludes.A. R.-Hidalgo

This discovery joins similar finds of avian toe bones and claws at 10 southern European sites dating to between 130,000 and 42,000 years ago that have been attributed to Neandertals (SN: 3/20/15). The hominids created talon jewelry for more than 80,000 years, until they died out (SN: 6/26/19) around the time that Foradada Cave was sporadically used a hunting shelter, the researchers assert.  

But claims of symbolic behavior among Neandertals have long ignited controversy (SN: 10/28/19). And investigators disagree about whether Neandertals or Stone Age Homo sapiens invented the type of stone tools unearthed at Foradada Cave and several other European sites of comparable age (SN: 9/13/05).

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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