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These eagle talons were Neanderthal jewelry

Even beyond showing that the Neanderthals had abilities and symbolic capacities to build jewelry, it took an advanced level of prowess to be able to catch three or four eagles to use in the jewelry, says David Frayer. (Credit: Radovčić D, et al. (2015) Evidence for Neandertal Jewelry: Modified White-Tailed Eagle Claws at Krapina. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0119802)

There’s a myth that Neanderthals, our very close but extinct relatives, weren’t very smart. The discovery of eagle talons from 130,000 years ago challenges that view, however.

Found in present-day Croatia, the talons include several marks and polishing facets that show they were manipulated into a piece of jewelry, says study coauthor David Frayer, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Kansas.

“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.”

white-tailed eagles
White-tailed eagles. (Credit: Jüri Vahar/Flickr)

Frayer says the eight white-tailed eagle bones were discovered more than 100 years ago from a single level at the Krapina Neanderthal site, which was originally excavated between 1899-1905. However, researchers only recently recognized the cut marks on the bones as the ancient humans’ manipulations.

“There’s just no doubt that they made it, and it was a necklace or bracelet or piece of jewelry,” Frayer says.

At the Krapina site, the detailed records from the excavations helped ensure for researchers that the manipulated eagle talons were dated at least 80,000 years earlier than any modern humans entered Europe, so there is no doubt that Neanderthals were solely responsible.

Eagle-catching skills

Frayer says beyond showing the Neanderthals had abilities and symbolic capacities to build jewelry, it took an advanced level of prowess to be able to catch three or four eagles to use in the jewelry.

“It really shows a level of technical sophistication, too,” he says.

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Frayer credits study coauthor Davorka Radovčić’s fresh look at the items with making the discovery in the collections from a site in which researchers have worked for decades.

“It’s really a stunning 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,” Frayer says.

“It’s associated with fossils that people don’t like to consider to be human.”

The findings appear in PLOS ONE. Radovčić is a curator at the Croatian Natural History Museum.

Source: University of Kansas