Eagle talons may be the earliest known Neandertal ornaments

Davorka Radovčić and colleagues have published a new analysis of eagle talons from the faunal assemblage excavated from the rock shelter at Krapina, Croatia (“Evidence for Neandertal Jewelry: Modified White-Tailed Eagle Claws at Krapina”). This assemblage was first recovered by Dragutin Gorjanović-Kramberger beginning in 1899 and the eagle talons were rapidly identified. But the first scientists to examine them all missed the evidence for cutmarks upon the eagle talons. And nobody thought it strange that the Krapina faunal assemblage includes eight of them:

Eagle talons are rare at other Neandertal localities and no sites have yielded eight talons from white-tailed eagles or any other raptor. Since three-four different eagles are represented, they must have been acquired in separate events and were preserved as a unit before they were lost in the sediments. Others have noted [6–7, 27, 41–43] that raptor bones found in late Pleistocene sites signal some kind of symbolic activity. At Krapina, cut marks on the pedal phalanx and talons are not related to feather removal or subsistence, so these must be the result of severing tendons for talon acquisition. Further evidence for combining these in jewelry is edge smoothing of the cut marks, the small polished facets, medial/lateral sheen and nicks on some specimens. All are a likely manifestation of the separating the bones from the foot and the attachment of the talons to a string or sinew. Cut marks on many aspects, but not the plantar surfaces, illustrate the numerous approaches the Neandertals had for severing the bones and mounting them into a piece of jewelry.

Radovčić and colleagues observe that some of the cutmarks have evidence of smoothing, and there are polished facets on the talons that suggest they had been tied together and worn against a surface, as would naturally occur if they were part of a necklace or bracelet. The Krapina archaeological layers date to around the time of the last interglacial, as early as 130,000 years ago. The antiquity of the talons removes any possibility that the behavior was a consequence of stimulus diffusion or direct copying from modern humans.

The University of Kansas has done a nice interview with David Frayer, one of the authors of the study, explaining the significance and context of the cutmarks:

Again, more discoveries to be made in museum collections by looking carefully for evidence that earlier (and often overworked) analysts may have missed…

Reference

Radovčić D, Sršen AO, Radovčić J, Frayer DW (2015) Evidence for Neandertal Jewelry: Modified White-Tailed Eagle Claws at Krapina. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0119802. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0119802