This past week, a science news story broke about Neandertal jewelry. The find occured in the Krapina Neandertal site in Croatia, which has previously yielded Neandertal fossils and classic Neandertal tools. The jewelry consists of eight, mostly complete eagle talons dating to approximately 130,000 years old. Scientists think these talons were once strung together on some sort of thread and possibly worn as a bracelet or necklace. The striking thing about these eagle talons, (which scientists suggest are part of a larger jewelry assemblage) is that scientists have discovered cut marks, polishing facets, and other evidence of purposeful alteration of the talons. This suggests that Neandertals were using the talons in a deliberate, planned, manner.
Why does Jewelry Matter?
Two words: Symbolic thought. Anthropologists have long associated any sort of art, jewelry included, as evidence for advanced cognitive thinking. A creature that creates art has the capacity (theoretically) to plan ahead, to associate symbols with meaning, and therefore to think in a complex way. A decade ago, many scientists believed that only Homo sapiens were capable of symbolic thought.
As Laura Clark cleverly stated in her article on the discovery published in the Smithsonian,
“Neanderthals have long been characterized as bumbling early cousins of modern humans—incapable of the sophistication that would characterize the more beautiful-browed homo sapiens.”
Discoveries like this one help us rethink those ideas of dumb Neandertals. They are no longer thought of in the scientific community as coauthor of the paper, David Frayer, put it “simple-minded mumbling, bumbling, stumbling fools.”
This adds to the growing number of examples for Neandertal art, further supporting hypotheses that Neandertals were creative and intelligent. As the article states, recent examples of Neandertal art include “unusual lithic objects, feathers, modified shells, and ochre.” Despite this mounting evidence, some scientists continued to argue until fairly recently that Neandertal art was simply the result of their introduction to Homo sapiens. However, the Krapina talons denies that claim, as this these talons date over 80,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe! The authors summed it up well in their final sentence of the paper, stating that these pieces 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.”
This cave actually has a long history! As the authors note in their paper, the cave was first excavated around 1905 by Gorjanović-Kramberger. Additionally, these exact talons were published by a hungarian paleontologist in the early twentieth century named Kálmán Lambrecht, who studied fossil birds. Only recently did scientists dig through a museum collection to reexamine the talons, and it was then that they noticed the carvings on them. This is just another reminder of how interesting stuff is often hiding in museums, waiting for a rediscovery!
Anthropologist John Hawks recently tweeted, optimistically, that “there will come a day when evidence of Neandertal symbolic behavior is no longer newsworthy.” He added, however, that “this is not that day.” Amen to that. But at least we are (in my opinion) moving in the right direction. I hope cover a bit about why we tend to think of Neandertals as brutish and dumb soon, so stay tuned!
Clark, Laura. “Neanderthal Jewelry Is Just as Fiercely Cool as You’d Imagine.”
Lambrecht K. Handbuch der palaeornithologie Berlin: Gebrüder Borntraeger; 1933
Radovčić, D., A. O. Sršen, J. Radovčić, and D. W. Frayer. “Evidence for Neandertal Jewelry: Modified White-Tailed Eagle Claws at Krapina.” PLoS ONE10, no. 3 (2015): e0119802.