Cache of eagle claws points to Neandertal jewelry-making

Extinct human relative had ability to create symbolic objects, researchers argue

talon jewelry

TALON SHOW  Neandertals strung these eight white-tailed eagle claws into a necklace or bracelet 130,000 years ago, a new study concludes. A white-tailed eagle’s foot bone (far right) was found with the claws.

Luka Mjeda (Zagreb)

Neandertals made the oldest known piece of jewelry in Europe, a 130,000-year-old necklace or bracelet featuring eight white-tailed eagle claws, a new study suggests.

The eagle claws came from a rock-shelter in Croatia called Krapina where Neandertal remains have also been unearthed. Toolmarks and polished spots showing wear on the claws indicate they were purposefully removed from eagles, strung together and worn, researchers report online March 11 in PLOS ONE.  

This personal ornament was created roughly 60,000 years before Homo sapiens reached Europe, say paleontologist Davorka Radovčić of the Croatian Natural History Museum in Zagreb and her colleagues. The timing means that Neandertals didn’t have to wait for modern humans to move in and demonstrate necklace-making and other symbolic practices, as some researchers have argued, her team concludes. Given the difficulty of obtaining white-tailed eagles’ talons, and the birds’ fierce and majestic natures, a piece of eagle-claw jewelry must have had symbolic meaning for Neandertals, the scientists contend.

“To discover evidence of what’s widely regarded as typical modern behavior at such an ancient Neandertal site is stunning,” says paleoanthropologist and study coauthor David Frayer of the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Radovčić noticed tool-produced incisions on the set of eagle talons in 2013 while conducting an inventory of fossils and stone tools recovered more than a century ago at Krapina. Decay rates of radioactive elements in Krapina Neandertal teeth indicate that these individuals lived 130,000 years ago. No H. sapiens remains have been unearthed at the site.

Microscopic analysis indicated that the toolmarks were made while removing talons from eagles’ feet. Neandertals wrapped string around the ends of talons and over the tool marks to make a wearable object, Radovčić’s team proposes. Incisions on strung claws developed polished edges from rubbing against the string, the researchers say.

Eagle claws on the Krapina ornament came in contact with each other when the jewelry was worn, creating more polished patches on talons’ sides, the researchers add.

No remnants of string have yet turned up among the Krapina finds. A team led by paleoanthropologist Bruce Hardy of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, reported in 2013 that Neandertals twisted fibers to make string at a cave in southeastern France nearly 90,000 years ago. “The evidence for Neandertal symbolic behavior continues to mount, and the Krapina talons significantly push back the date of that behavior,” he says.

In addition, individual eagle talons, possibly used as pendants, have been found at a handful of other Neandertal sites dating to as early as 80,000 years ago, Frayer says.

The Krapina eagle claws include three second talons from the right foot, so at least three birds are represented in the proposed ornament.

“The evidence points to a special relationship between Neandertals and birds of prey,” says evolutionary ecologist Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum, who was not part of the new study. In a controversial earlier finding, Finlayson reported that Neandertals decorated themselves with bird feathers (SN: 11/3/12, p. 8).

Neandertals likely caught white-tailed eagles, Finlayson speculates. Present-day white-tailed and golden eagles frequently feed on animals’ carcasses, he says. “White-tailed eagles look impressive and dangerous but they behave like vultures.” Neandertals could have baited eagles with pieces of meat placed on covered traps or thrown nets over the animals as they fed on strategically placed snacks.

Even if the Krapina claws gain wide acceptance as remnants of a bone fide piece of jewelry, debates about whether modern humans surpassed Neandertals in memory, social coordination and other traits are likely to continue.

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