Neandertals and eagle talons

2 minute read

Eugène Morin and Vronique Laroulandie have published a new paper in PLoS ONE demonstrating evidence that some Neandertals had a fetish for eagle talons Morin:Laroulandie:2012. From the conclusion of the (open access) paper:

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 [31]. 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 [32].

This is reminiscent of last year’s paper about intentional feather removal from raptor wings at Fumane Cave, Italy Peresani:2011. Morin and Laroulandie provide a table listing evidence of cut marked bird remains from Middle Paleolithic contexts across Europe. More and more, we are seeing these kinds of lists, as zooarchaeologists are synthesizing the behavior patterns evidenced by low frequency faunal remains from many sites.

Raptor phalanges showing Neandertal cutmarks

Figure 2 from Morin and Laroulandie, 2012. Original caption: "Stone tool incisions on terminal phalanges of diurnal raptors from Middle Paleolithic occupations in France. A) example of a fully fleshed golden eagle digit. BG show cutmarked terminal phalanges from layer 52 at Combe-Grenal (BC, golden eagle) and layers Jbase (DE, white-tailed eagle) and I/J (FG, white-tailed eagle) at Les Fieux. The black bars correspond to 1 cm. Philippe Jugie took the Combe-Grenal photographs, the others were taken by V.L."

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.