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30 November 2019
Did Neanderthals make eagle talon necklaces?

For tens of thousands of years, Neanderthals lived in small groups scattered across almost the whole of Eurasia. Studies have shown that Neanderthals in different areas ate distinct foods, and we know that tool types varied from place to place and over time.
     At Foradada Cave in northeast Spain, archaeologists recently unearthed the tip of a 39,000-year-old Spanish imperial eagle's left big toe with its claw missing, and cut marks suggesting someone had cut off the large, curved talon. Twenty-two other raptor toes found across southern Europe bear similar cut marks: an eagle-owl, a vulture, and 20 other eagles. With one exception the talons all seem to have been taken somewhere else. Archaeologist Antonio Rodriguez and his colleagues suggest that the missing talons and the cut-marked toes are evidence that Neanderthals in southern Europe were making jewelry out of eagle talons.
     Neanderthals, especially those living close to the Mediterranean Sea, ate birds fairly often, but large raptors do not seem to have been common menu items. Modern hunter-gatherers also rarely eat large birds of prey. Neanderthals don't seem to have used many bone tools, and there's no evidence of smaller bird talons being used as awls or needles.
     Rodriguez and his colleagues argue that Neanderthals at Foradada Cave and elsewhere across southern Europe used eagle talons as talismans, or visible markers of social standing, group membership, or some other aspect of identity. Rodriguez plans to study eagle-talon ornaments from indigenous Australian and North American cultures to compare patterns of cut marks and wear, as well as how each culture used and thought about those objects.
     If Rodriguez and his colleagues are right, the talons may also suggest that Neanderthal culture is older than some similar aspects of human culture. The earliest eagle toes with cut marks date to sometime between 120,000 and 130,000 years ago - slightly older than the perforated seashells at Homo sapiens sites in North Africa - meaning that Neanderthals probably developed symbolism on their own, and that Neanderthal culture had continuity. The Foradada Cave bones date to around 42,000 years ago - roughly 80,000 years later than the earliest examples, around the time of the last Neanderthals.

Edited from Ars Technica (20 November 2019)

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