More than a century ago, eight 130,000-year-old eagle claws were discovered at an archaeological site in present-day Croatia. Now, researchers studying the marks on them reveal that the talons were worn by Neanderthals as jewelry. The findings are published in PLOS ONE this week.
The remnants of ornaments are quite commonly associated with Homo sapiens fossils, leading some to think that jewelry represent the special cognitive abilities and symbolic capacities of our species. Some even argue that Neanderthals lacked symbolic ability, or that they copied this behavior from modern humans. "Neanderthals are often thought of to be simple-minded mumbling, bumbling, stumbling fools," David Frayer from the University of Kansas says in a news release. "But the more we know about them the more sophisticated they've become."
These eight mostly complete talons, plus one “finger” bone, belonged to three or four white-tailed eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla), and they were unearthed at the Krapina Neanderthal site—a sandstone rock shelter originally excavated between 1899 and 1905. Only recently, however, were the markings on them recognized as “man-made.” Now, Frayer and colleagues were able to describe the cut marks and other surface alterations using microscopy and microphotography.
Four of the talons bear multiple, edge-smoothed cut marks, and all eight show polishing facets or abrasions. Three of the largest talons have small notches at roughly the same place along the plantar (or sole) surface, interrupting the margin of the talon blade—features that suggest the talons were mounted in a necklace or bracelet. An associated finger or toe bone (the third phalanx of digit 3) articulates with one of the talons, and it has at least 21 cut marks, some of which are smoothed.
Here are three examples of human manipulation: (a) smoothed cut marks on the articular facet (b) burnished area near the tip (c) nick on the otherwise sharp plantar margin.
Modern white-tailed eagles can weigh 6.5 kilograms (14 lbs), and they have a two-meter (6.5 ft) wingspan and aggressive personalities—making them very difficult to trap or catch. They’re the top daytime avian predators in Europe today, and based on talon size, the white-tailed eagles at Krapina were similar in body size to modern ones. It took an advanced level of prowess to catch these eagles used in the jewelry, Frayer says. “It really shows a level of technical sophistication, too."
These manipulated eagle talons demonstrate that the Krapina Neanderthals were making jewelry well before the appearance of modern humans in Europe: The talons were dated at least 80,000 years earlier than our arrival on the continent, leaving little doubt that Neanderthals were solely responsible. “It's so startling because there's just nothing like it until very recent times," Frayer adds. "It's associated with fossils that people don't like to consider to be human."
Images: Luka Mjeda (top), 2015 Radovčić et al. (middle)