An excavation in a cave occupied by Neanderthals in Spain has uncovered what is considered to be the last necklace ever made by our distant cousins, which features eagle talons that had symbolic meaning and value.
Around 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals roamed the Iberian peninsula and occupied caves near the Mediterranean coast. One such cave, known as Foradada Cave, is located in the Province of Valencia just over two miles from the sea.
Excavations there have been ongoing since the 1970s. But in 2010, researchers uncovered something extraordinary. They found a complete Neanderthal skeleton, the most complete ever discovered on the Iberian peninsula.
Near the end of their existence, the last Neanderthals in Europe were part of châtelperronian culture (CP), a time when the hominid species made distinctive cutting tools and came into contact with Homo sapiens, also known as modern humans.
During a recent excavation, researchers made yet another fascinating discovery that sheds even more light on this period of Neanderthal history and culture in the form of eagle talons, which may have been used to make jewelry or ornaments to symbolize status.
According to the study published in Science Advances:
Evidence for the symbolic behavior of Neanderthals in the use of personal ornaments is relatively scarce. Among the few ornaments documented, eagle talons, which were presumably used as pendants, are the most frequently recorded.
This phenomenon appears concentrated in a specific area of southern Europe during a span of 80 thousand years. Here, we present the analysis of one eagle pedal phalange recovered from the Châtelperronian layer of Foradada Cave (Spain).
Our research broadens the known geographical and temporal range of this symbolic behavior, providing the first documentation of its use among the Iberian populations, as well as of its oldest use in the peninsula.
The recurrent appearance of large raptor talons throughout the Middle Paleolithic time frame, including their presence among the last Neanderthal populations, raises the question of the survival of some cultural elements of the Middle Paleolithic into the transitional Middle to Upper Paleolithic assemblages and beyond.
Based on the marks made on the bones, the researchers believe that the eagle talons were arranged as a necklace, making it one of the final pieces of jewelry made by Neanderthals before they went extinct.
“This would be the last necklace made by the Neanderthals,” Institute of Evolution in Africa researcher Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo said in a press release by the University of Barcelona. “Neanderthals used eagle talons as symbolic elements, probably as necklace pendants, from the beginnings of the mid Palaeolithic.”
The study details the markings found on several eagle talons.
The phalange presents 12 cut marks on the dorsal side of the diaphysis, appearing along approximately two-thirds of the phalanx’s total length. Most of the cuts are oriented obliquely to the principal axis of the bone, ranging from the proximal epiphysis to distal extremity of the bone.
These striae are found oriented parallel among themselves. All these oblique cuts are deep and present both composed striae and associated shoulder effect as deep as the principal groove like those produced by retouched stone tools. An additional incision can be observed, presented obliquely oriented with a longitudinal tendency.
This last mark is more superficial than the previous marks and superimposes all other incisions. The 12 incisions observed present an average length of 3.67 mm and width of 0.23 mm. A general increase in the opening angle of each groove can be observed, while a similar pattern is observed through a decrease in depth of each profile along the groove.
Past findings of eagle talons in southern Europe, such as those found in Mandrin cave, support this new discovery at Foradada cave, as does a previous study in 2015 of several polished eagle talons found at the turn of the 20th century.
The researchers also agree that eagle talons, along with talons of different bird species, were used as a form of communication.
Current inferences regarding talons interpreted as ornaments highlight them to be “surviving traces of ancient human communication”, and precisely because of this, talons of different birds with different appearances and behaviors could transmit different messages about the identity of the bearer. In contrast, these archaic populations might not have needed to taxonomically differentiate between large raptor species, regardless of whether they could or not.
However, the team pointed out that the hypothesis that these talons were used as ornaments has been investigated with caution because it’s hard to know for sure exactly what these talons meant to the Neanderthals or what they were used for. But they argue that their research makes it clear the symbolic use of eagle talons by Neanderthals was a tradition for thousands of years, and different sizes may have helped separate groups recognize each other. It’s similar to how early humans used seashells as ornaments and necklaces, only Neanderthal use of eagle talons predates human use of seashells in Africa and the Levant.
Although researchers tend to agree on the symbolic nature of talons, their definition of these elements as personal ornaments has been explored with prudence. Most have advocated defining the talons as “supposed ornaments,” while others have opted to refer to these finds directly as an example of “Neanderthal jewelry”.
In accepting the use of talons as personal ornaments, this can be considered a tradition that predates any other manifestation of symbolism among Neanderthals, especially those in which seashells play a central role. If not, this manifestation also entails important implications for the emergence of symbolism and behavioral modernity, although further investigation is necessary to establish the functionality behind these objects.
Regardless of whether the talons were hanging “beads,” part of necklaces, earrings, or any other elements for which there are no current parallels, the case of Foradada indicates the symbolic use of talons to be a well-rooted tradition among the Neanderthals of southern Europe for more than 80 millennia.
Furthermore, our research suggests the presence of a common cultural territory in which the meaning conveyed by these large-raptor talons could probably be recognized by individuals from different groups. To date, the total absence of raptor talon exploitation in the African Paleolithic record forces us to ask ourselves for the direction of cultural interactions between Neanderthals and modern humans.
The team was also able to identify the talons as belonging to the Iberian or Spanish Imperial Eagle or a close relative, thus contributing to the evolutionary history of the eagle as well.
Foradada specimens can contribute to our knowledge of the evolutionary history of imperial eagles. If the specimens presented in this paper belong to A. adalberti or their ancestor, then they would be the oldest recorded find of the species so far. If these remains belong to the species A. heliaca, then it would be the first occurrence of this species in the fossil record of Iberia (for the whole of the Quaternary, Pleistocene, or Holocene periods).
And it’s not just Neanderthals who made necklaces out of eagle talons. Humans continued this Neanderthal tradition by making jewelry using talons, but also with bear claws and the teeth and claws of many different animals. Some of the best examples of this are found in Native American culture.
Needless to say, this is an extraordinary find that only adds to the evidence that Neanderthal culture is more complex than we have previously believed, all while providing new information about them with the added bonus of new knowledge about the evolution of imperial eagles. It’s the kind of find that scientists dream of making.
Featured Image: PLOS