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The last Neanderthal necklace

Eagle talons are regarded as the first elements used to make jewellery by Neanderthals, a practice which spread around Southern Europe about 120,000 and 40,000 years ago. Now, for the first time, researchers found evidence of the ornamental uses of eagle talons in the Iberian Peninsula. An article published in the cover of the journal Science Advances talks about the findings, which took place in the site of the cave Foradada in Calafell. The article was led by Antonio Rodriguez-Hidalgo, researcher at the Institute of Evolution in Africa (IDEA) and member of the research team in a project of the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar (SERP) of the UB.

The last Neanderthal necklace
A falange of imperial eagle with marks of court from Cave Foradada
[Credit: Antonio Rodriguez-Hidalgo]
The interest in these findings lies in the fact that it is the most modern piece of the kind so far regarding the Neanderthal period and the first one found in the Iberian Peninsula. This circumstance widens the temporary and geographical limits that were estimated for this kind of Neanderthal ornaments. This would be "the last necklace made by the Neanderthals", according to Antonio Rodriguez-Hidalgo.

The last Neanderthal necklace
Imperial eagle talons [Credit: Antonio Rodriguez-Hidalgo]
"Neanderthals used eagle talons as symbolic elements, probably as necklace pendants, from the beginnings of the mid Palaeolithic", notes Antonio Rodriguez-Hidalgo. In particular, what researchers found in Cova Foradada are bone remains from Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila Adalberti), from more than 39,000 years ago, with some marks that show these were used to take the talons so as to make pendants.

The found remains correspond to the left leg of a big eagle. By the looks of the marks, and analogy regarding remains from different prehistorical sites and ethnographic documentation, researchers determined that the animal was not manipulated for consumption but for symbolic reasons. Eagle talons are the oldest ornamental elements known in Europe, even older than seashells Homo sapiens sapiens perforated in northern Africa.

The last Neanderthal necklace
Experimental butchering of vulture talons to stablish analogies with archaeological cut marks
[Credit: Antonio Rodriguez-Hidalgo]
The findings belong to the chatelperronian culture, typical from the last Neanderthals that lived in Europe, and coincided with the moment when this species got in touch with Homo sapiens sapiens, from Africa -and expanding from the Middle East. Actually, Juan Ignacio Morales, researcher in the program Juan de la Cierva affiliated at SERP and signer of the article, presents this use of eagle talons as ornaments could have been a cultural transmission from the Neanderthals to modern humans, who adopted this practice after reaching Europe.

The last Neanderthal necklace
The site of the cave Foradada (Calafell, Tarragona)
[Credit: Antonio Rodriguez-Hidalgo]
Cova Foradada covers the most meridional chatelperronian culture site in Europe. The discovery involved a change in the map of the territory where the step from Middle Palaeolithic to Upper Palaeolithic took place 40,000 years ago, and where interaction between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens sapiens probably took place.

Studies in Cova Foradada started in 1997. At the moment, the supervision of the excavation is led by Juan Ignacio Morales and Artur Cebria. The archaeological study of this site is included in a SERP project funded by the Department of Culture of the Catalan Government and another funded by the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities, headed by UB professor and SERP director Josep M Fullola.

The study was published in Science Advances.

Source: University of Barcelona [November 01, 2019]


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  1. Yes, thanks a lot for this, but do "the symbolic and non-utilitarian meaning of raptor talons" imply that neandertals could "create and understand fully abstract concepts"? Do the colorful structures built by bowerbirds mean that these birds have abstract concepts? Perhaps the pendants of raptor talons enhanced the social status of the bearer, withouth much specific symbolic meaning?
    Could wearing pendants have begun with beads of shells, an indication that the bearer had access to shellfish? Shellfish are extremely rich in brain-secific nutrients (esp. DHA docosahexaenoic acid). Nutritional, isotopic & paleo-environmental evidence (google e.g. "coastal dispersal of Pleistocene Homo 2018 biology vs anthropocentrism") shows that the diet of European neandertals was typically intermediate between freshwater & marine foods: did they live along oxbow lakes, beaver ponds & river valleys (where they fossilized), but seasonally follow the river to the sea (e.g. Gibraltar, La Cotte de Saint Brélade). Much earlier already, H.erectus had shellfish in their diet (e.g. José Joordens et al. 2015 "Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool production and engraving" Nature 518:228-231), which might help explain the drastic brain expansion of H.erectus (DHA).


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