Feather finds hint at Neandertal art

Extinct human relatives may have gotten creative with plumage

Neandertals may not have painted pictures on cave walls, but a new study proposes they had an artistic sensibility. These close Stone Age relatives of people regularly made personal and possibly ritual ornaments that included bird feathers.

Big-boned, slope-faced Neandertals shared with ancient humans a mental talent for using concrete objects — whether rock drawings or decorative feathers — to represent abstract ideas and beliefs, say evolutionary ecologist Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum and his colleagues.

Neandertals took a fancy to feathers on their own, several thousand years before encountering Stone Age people who also adorned themselves with plumage, the researchers contend in a paper published online September 17 in PLoS ONE.

That conclusion is questionable, and the new study won’t resolve a long-standing scientific debate about whether Neandertals’ mental faculties matched those of Homo sapiens, remarks anthropologist Mary Stiner of the University of Arizona in Tucson. “It’s difficult on the basis of the information presented to float the claim that birds were a central and widespread prop in Neandertal ritual,” Stiner says.

Finlayson’s team first analyzed remains from 1,699 Stone Age sites, mostly caves, in North Africa, Asia and Europe that have yielded bird fossils. Bones of large birds have often been found mixed with Neandertal fossils at sites dating to between roughly 100,000 and 28,000 years ago.

Examination of 604 bones from 21 bird species previously excavated at Gorham’s Cave, a Neandertal site in Gibraltar, revealed a predominance of wing fossils. Wing bones of at least 18 birds displayed stone-tool incisions or breaks produced during the removal of feathers, the researchers say.

Neandertals used bird feathers throughout their time at Gorham’s Cave, which lasted from at least 42,000 years ago to 28,000 years ago (SN Online: 9/22/08), Finlayson and his colleagues propose. Neandertals could have collected feathers from birds’ nests or roosts, from birds that died and fell to the ground or from birds killed as they fed on animals’ carcasses.

Then again, it could just be that Neandertal and bird fossils accumulated together in caves simply because both parties spent a lot of time taking shelter in those locations, Stiner says. Bird remains associated with Neandertal activities of any kind are rare, she says.

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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