Experts agree that Neandertals hunted large game, controlled fire, wore animal furs and made stone tools. But whether they also engaged in activities deemed to be more advanced has been a matter of heated debate. Some researchers have argued that Neandertals lacked the know-how to effectively exploit small prey, such as birds, and that they did not routinely express themselves through language and other symbolic behaviors. Such shortcomings, so the story goes, put the Neandertals at a distinct disadvantage when anatomically modern humans possessing these skills invaded Europe—which was a Neandertal stronghold for hundreds of thousands of years—and presumably began competing with them.
New evidence suggesting that Neandertals hunted birds for their decorative feathers could force skeptics to rethink that view. In a paper published September 17 in PLoS ONE, paleontologist Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum, zooarchaeologist Jordi Rosell of Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain, and their colleagues report on their analyses of animal remains from 1,699 fossil sites in Eurasia and North Africa spanning the Pleistocene epoch. Their results show that Neandertals across western Eurasia were strongly associated with corvids (ravens and the like) and raptors (eagles and their relatives)—more so than were the anatomically modern humans who succeeded them.
The Neandertals seem unlikely to have hunted these birds for food. People today do not eat corvids or raptors. Moreover, if the Neandertals did hunt the birds for food, one would expect to see signs of butchery on those bones linked to fleshy parts of the bird, such as the breastbone. Yet the team's study of the bird bones from the Gibraltar sites found the cut marks on wing bones, which have little meat.
Exactly what the Neandertals were doing with the feathers is unknown, but because they specifically sought out birds with dark plumage, the researchers suspect that our kissing cousins were festooning themselves with the resplendent flight feathers.
This is not the first time scientists have found evidence that Neandertals used feathers. In 2011 a team of Italian researchers reported on cut-marked bird bones from Neandertal levels in Fumane Cave in northern Italy that revealed this practice. Still, some researchers dismissed the find as an isolated phenomenon. The new findings suggest that feathers were de rigueur for thousands of years not only among Gibraltar's Neandertals but quite possibly for Neandertals across Eurasia.
Speakers at a conference on human evolution held in Gibraltar in September extolled the study and agreed with the team's interpretation of the remains as evidence that Neandertals adorned themselves with the feathers as opposed to using them for some strictly utilitarian purpose. Says paleoanthropologist John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin–Madison: “A purely utilitarian kind of person does not put on a feathered headdress.”
Adapted from the Observations blog at blogs.ScientificAmerican.com/observations
This article was originally published with the title Best of the Blogs: Caveman Couture.