Neanderthals are stereotypically portrayed as thick-browed, imbecilic “cavemen,” but our distant relations may have been more intelligent than we give them credit for. A team of American and Croatian scientists have uncovered evidence that European Neanderthals were manipulating raptor talons to make jewelry at least 130,000 years ago, or about 80,000 years before the first Homo sapiens even stepped foot on the continent. In fact, a set of eight white-tailed eagle claws, all deriving from the same time period in present-day Krapina in Croatia, feature notches, markings, and polishing facets that suggest they were used as adornment, according to David Frayer, emeritus professor anthropology at the University of Kansas and one of the study’s lead authors.
Although the bones were discovered at a single site more than 100 years ago, researchers only recently recognized the abrasions as human manipulations. The findings, which were published this month in the journal PLOS ONE, throws into disarray common wisdom about ornaments, which are commonly associated with fossil Homo sapiens and thought to represent the cognitive superiority of modern humans.
“Neanderthals are often thought of to be simple-minded mumbling, bumbling, stumbling fools,” Frayer says. “But the more we know about them the more sophisticated they’ve become.”
But beyond showing that Neanderthals had both the ability and “symbolic capacity” to create jewelry, Frayer says it also took advanced skill to capture the three of four eagles for their talons. White-tailed eagles, still among the top avian predators in Europe today, are particularly vicious and not easy to trap or catch.
Frayer continues to be bowled over by the implications of the discovery. “It’s one of those things that just appeared out of the blue. It’s so unexpected and it’s so startling because there’s just nothing like it until very recent times to find this kind of jewelry,” he says. “It’s associated with fossils that people don’t like to consider to be human.”