Neandertals and eagle talons12 Mar 2012
Eugène Morin and Vronique Laroulandie have published a new paper in PLoS ONE demonstrating evidence that some Neandertals had a fetish for eagle talons
Because claws are inedible, the specimens presented here are not compatible with human consumption. This means that the tool-marked terminal phalanges found at Combe-Grenal, Les Fieux, Pech de l'Az IV, and Grotta di Fumane were likely used as tools and/or as items of symbolic expression. Although the sample size is small, the fact that all the terminal phalanges that show cutmarks are from eagles argues against their utilization in strictly non-symbolic contexts. This last pattern is noteworthy because eagles are among the rarest birds in the environment, a pattern explained by their high trophic position in the food web . This bias toward large and powerful diurnal raptors possibly indicates that the claws were used in symbolically-oriented contexts by Neanderthals, although the latter contexts remain to be more precisely defined. One possibility is that they were used as ornaments, as has been suggested for the Upper Paleolithic occupations (dated to ca. 20 ka) at Meged Rockshelter in Israel .
This is reminiscent of last year’s paper about intentional feather removal from raptor wings at Fumane Cave, Italy
Unambiguous evidence for ornamentation by some Neandertals has long been known, but adding more clear evidence for the use of perishable materials helps to establish the pattern. More important, the present evidence from Combe Grenal puts the non dietary use of eagle talons back to 90,000 years ago, long before any Upper Paleolithic in the area. It’s one thing when archaeologists document symbolic behavior in “transitional industries”, because these arguably represent a more advanced conception of technology in some way. I am more interested in the recent expansion of our understanding Mousterian and similar industries in Europe.