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Neanderthals wore jewelry made of eagle talons, study finds

With jewelry made out of eagle talons, Neanderthals' accessories were fierce

Even Neanderthals liked a little bling. A fresh examination of prehistoric eagle talons discovered more than 100 years ago reveals that our ancient relatives made and wore their own jewelry.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, indicates that modern humans weren’t the only hominins who accessorized – and it further narrows the distinctions that some scientists think may have set the two species apart.

“Some have argued that Neandertals lacked symbolic ability or copied this behavior from modern humans,” the study authors wrote. “These remains clearly show that the Krapina Neandertals made jewelry well before the appearance of modern humans in Europe.”

The eight white-tailed eagle talons were all found in the same archaeological layer and are an estimated 130,000 years old. The talons were found more than a century ago, during excavations of a Krapina Neanderthal site that lies in Croatia, but a Croatian and American team of researchers decided to subject the ancient find to fresh eyes.

The scientists found that the talons feature similar patterns of distinct markings – four of them have multiple cut marks with smoothed edges, all of them show some kind of abrasion or polishing, and three of the heavyweights have small notches in roughly the same spots.

“Presence of eight Krapina talons, four showing cut marks, suggests they were disarticulated by cutting the tendons, curated and lost as a unit, probably as a necklace or some other kind of jewelry,” the researchers wrote.

So from the looks of it, the scientists think that these features might have been mounted together in a single piece. There’s also a single phalanx (a toe bone) with similar cuts and abrasion, they wrote.

If you think those bones were easy to procure, think again. For one thing, compared to other birds in the environment, white-tailed eagles are relatively rare – and yet their bones account for the majority of the bird-life sample at the Krapina site. For another, they were pretty fierce.

“White-tailed eagles are impressive birds with aggressive personalities and are not easy to catch or trap, today or in the past,” the study authors wrote. “Modern ones have a 2-meter wingspan, a body weight from 3.0–6.5 kgs and are the top diurnal, avian predators in Europe today.”

Scientists have discovered evidence that Neanderthals created cave paintings and even buried their dead. But before this, many thought that making jewelry was a skill characteristic of our own species (Homo sapiens), not of Neanderthals.

“Ornaments are commonly associated with fossil Homo sapiens and are thought to represent the special cognitive abilities and symbolic capacities of modern humans,” the authors wrote.

But keep in mind, modern humans didn’t appear in Europe until roughly 80,000 years after this necklace was made. Neanderthals must have started the practice on their own – which means Homo sapiens wasn’t the only hominin with this particular level of abstract thinking.

“These talons provide multiple new lines of evidence for Neandertals’ abilities and cultural sophistication,” the study authors wrote. “They are the earliest evidence for jewelry in the European fossil record and demonstrate that Neandertals possessed a symbolic culture long before more modern human forms arrived in Europe.”

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