Neandertals create oldest jewelry in Europe

Their ornamentation came from nature: eagle claws

Spiked! Neandertals strung these eight white-tailed eagle claws into a necklace or bracelet 130,000 years ago. Scientists found an eagle’s foot bone (far right) with the claws.

Luka Mjeda (Zagreb)

Neandertals fashioned the oldest known piece of jewelry in Europe, a new study suggests. The 130,000-year-old necklace or bracelet had featured eight claws from white-tailed eagles.

This personal ornament was created roughly 60,000 years before modern humans — Homo sapiens — reached Europe. That’s the conclusion of paleontologist Davorka Radovčić (Raah-dah-VEECH-eech) and her team. Radovčić works at the Croatian Natural History Museum in Zagreb. This jewelry was found in a rock shelter in Croatia, part of central Europe. Neandertal remains also showed up at this site, called Krapina (Krah-PEE-nah).

The claws showed marks made by some tool. There were also polished spots that would have come from wear. This suggests the claws had been deliberately removed from eagles, strung together and worn, the researchers say.

They described their findings March 11 in the journal PLOS ONE

Some researchers had argued that Neandertals didn’t make jewelry. Some had doubted that these hominids even engaged in such symbolic practices until after they witnessed them in our species: Homo sapiens. But the age of the claws indicates that Neandertals were already accessorizing their bodies long before encountering modern humans.

White-tailed eagles are a fierce and majestic predator. Given how hard it would have been to get their talons, a piece of eagle-claw jewelry must have had great significance for Neandertals, the scientists argue.

“To discover evidence of what’s widely regarded as typical modern behavior [body ornamentation with jewelry] at such an ancient Neandertal site is stunning,” says David Frayer. A paleoanthropologist, he coauthored the new study. Frayer works at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Dating the ancient jewelry

Radovčić noticed incisions on the set of eagle talons. These scored marks looked like they had been deliberately made by a sharp tool. That was back in 2013. At the time, she had been surveying fossils and stone tools recovered more than a century ago at Krapina.

Her team estimated the age of Neandertal teeth at the site. To do this, they used a technique known as radioactive dating. Natural radioactive trace elements in the teeth change (decay from one isotope into another) at a fixed rate. That dating showed that the Krapina Neandertals lived roughly 130,000 years ago.

Under the microscope, marks on the talons appear to be incisions made while someone removed those claws from the birds’ feet. The jewelry maker likely wrapped string around the ends of the talons and over the tool marks to make a wearable object, Radovčić’s team says. Incisions on strung claws developed polished edges. The most likely explanation, the researchers say, is that these shiny spots developed when the claws rubbed against the string. Eagle claws on the Krapina ornament would have come in contact with each other when the jewelry was worn. And there are signs of this on the talons’ sides, the researchers note. No string turned up.

Paleoanthropologist Bruce Hardy works at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. In 2013, his team reported finding that Neandertals twisted fibers to make string at a cave in southeastern France. That string was nearly 90,000 years old. “Evidence for Neandertal symbolic behavior continues to mount,” Hardy says. “And the Krapina talons significantly push back the date of that behavior,” he adds.

Ogling eagle bits

This wasn’t the first sign of talon appreciation in Neandertals. Individual eagle talons, possibly used as pendants, showed up at a handful of later Neandertal sites. Some dated to 80,000 years ago, Frayer says. Still, that’s 50,000 years later than those found at the Krapina site.

The Krapina claws include three second talons from a bird’s right foot. That means that at least three birds would have been needed to make this ornament.

“The evidence points to a special relationship between Neandertals and birds of prey,” says Clive Finlayson. He’s an evolutionary ecologist at the Gibraltar Museum. He was not part of the new study. In a controversial earlier finding, Finlayson reported that Neandertals decorated themselves with bird feathers.

Neandertals likely caught white-tailed eagles, he says. Present-day white-tailed and golden eagles frequently feed on the carcasses of animals, he says. “White-tailed eagles look impressive and dangerous but they behave like vultures.” To catch them, Neandertals could have baited eagles with pieces of meat placed on covered traps. Or they could have thrown nets over the animals as they fed on strategically placed snacks.

Power Words

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behavior  The way a person or other organism acts towards others, or conducts itself.

carcass  The body of a dead animal.

evolutionary ecologist  Someone who studies the adaptive processes that have led to the diversity of ecosystems on Earth. These scientists can study many different subjects, including the microbiology and genetics of living organisms, how species that share the same community adapt to changing conditions over time, and the fossil record (to assess how various ancient communities of species are related to each other and to modern-day relatives).

fossil  Any preserved remains or traces of ancient life. There are many different types of fossils: The bones and other body parts of dinosaurs are called “body fossils.” Things like footprints are called “trace fossils.” Even specimens of dinosaur poop are fossils.

hominid   A primate from an animal family that includes humans and their fossil ancestors.

Homo  A genus of species that includes modern humans (Homo sapiens). All had large brains and used tools. This genus is believed to have first evolved in Africa and over time its members continued to evolve and radiate throughout the rest of the world.

incision     (v. to incise) A cut with some blade-like object or marking that has been cut into some material. Surgeons, for instance, use scalpels to make incisions through the skin and muscle to reach internal organs.

isotope   Different forms of an element that vary somewhat in weight (and potentially in lifetime). All have the same number of protons, but different numbers of neutrons in their nucleus. That’s why they differ in mass.

Neandertal  A hominid species (Homo neanderthalensis) that lived in Europe and parts of Asia from about 200,000 years ago to roughly 28,000 years ago.

paleoanthropology    The study of the culture of ancient people or human-like folk, based on the analysis of remnants, artifacts or markings created or used by these individuals. People who work in this field are known as paleoanthropologists.

paleontologist  A scientist who specializes in studying fossils, the remains of ancient organisms.

predator  (adjective: predatory) A creature that preys on other animals for most or all of its food.

prey  Animal species eaten by others.

radioactive  An adjective that describes unstable elements, such as certain forms (isotopes) of uranium and plutonium. Such elements are said to be unstable because their nucleus sheds energy that is carried away by photons and/or and often one or more subatomic particles. This emission of energy is by a process known as radioactive decay.

talon    The curved toenail-like claw on the foot of a bird, lizard or other predatory animal that uses these claws to snag prey and tear into its tissues.

trait   A characteristic feature of something.

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