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Golden eagle, majestic bird revered by Neanderthals who used eagle talons to make jewelry.

Ancient Raptor Captors Weren’t Thugs: Neanderthals Caught Eagles and Treasured Their Talons

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The golden eagle has had a special place in many human societies for millennia. They have been hunted, used to hunt and also honored. But the Neanderthals also seem to have prized and revered these remarkable birds. Evidence has been found that indicates they regularly hunted these birds of prey. It appears that eagles held a cultural significance for Neanderthals some 130,000 years ago, and this is adding to the body of knowledge that shows that they were not simply primitive cavemen.

A study, published in Quaternary Science Reviews and conducted by a family team of anthropologists – Stewart, Geraldine and Clive Finlayson and Francisco Giles Guzman, who have been examining the remains of birds in order to understand the diet and the lifestyle of early hominins in Europe. Remains from 26 sites were studied and they included the bones of a number of bird species. The scientists found many species, such as crow, that were eaten for meat. According to the Science Mag , they also found that “rock dove and raven remains were the most numerous birds , the remains of golden eagles were also present at 26 sites.”

However, what was striking was that they found many more golden eagle bones, especially claws than would be expected. The team was excited by this and investigated the matter further. They conducted a review of the literature on finds in Neanderthal caves and discovered that significant numbers of eagle talons and bones had been found at over 150 sites in Eurasia.

Golden Eagle Talons Were Used to Make Jewelry

The experts then went on to establish that the remains of the raptors were much more likely to have been cut or notched. The Daily Mail reports that “golden eagle talons stood out as being 'more likely' to show marks from human intervention.” It is clear that they were treated very differently than birds such as crows. The talons were carefully removed from the dead birds and this indicates that they were not only valued for their meat.

The claws that were found here had multiple regular cut marks on the edges of the plantar surface and there is evidence that they were polished. The notches were believed to have allowed the bones to be threaded and worn around the neck. This strongly indicates that the talons were used in jewelry pieces and for personal adornment.

An image of white-tailed eagle talons from the Krapina Neanderthal site in present-day Croatia, dating to approximately 130,000 years ago, may be part of a jewelry assemblage. (Luka Mjeda, Zagreb / CC-BY 4.0)

An image of white-tailed eagle talons from the Krapina Neanderthal site in present-day Croatia, dating to approximately 130,000 years ago, may be part of a jewelry assemblage. ( Luka Mjeda, Zagreb / CC-BY 4.0 )

This was very significant, and it convinced the team-members that Neanderthals had manufactured jewelry and practiced crafts. This would indicate that the hominins had a sophisticated social structure. This use of the raptor's talons indicates that “the claws had a symbolic value” according to the New Scientist . This would mean that they represented something culturally and religiously significant for the Neanderthals.

Sacred Bird and Ritual Use of Eagle Talons

The golden eagle has long been a “ symbolic species ” according to the Daily Mail . It was historically associated with solar deities or seen as a messenger of the gods, such as the Eagle of Zeus in Greek mythology. However, there is no way that we can know what the birds signified to Neanderthals.

There is evidence that Neanderthals performed ritual burials and used the eagle talons, demonstrating that the species had a special meaning to them. (Left, pict rider; Right, Luka Mjeda, Zagreb)

There is evidence that Neanderthals performed ritual burials and used the eagle talons, demonstrating that the species had a special meaning to them. (Left, pict rider ; Right, Luka Mjeda, Zagreb )

The manipulated talons offer more evidence that Neanderthals were much more intelligent and sophisticated than thought. There has been evidence found such as ritual burials demonstrating that the species had values and cultural beliefs . The Neanderthals are close relatives of modern humans and they left Africa some 500,000 years ago. They were a very successful species for thousands of years and later they coexisted with modern humans and it appears that the two hominins mated. Many present-day Europeans have traces of Neanderthal DNA . These hominins disappeared mysteriously some 30,000 years ago.

The Mysterious Disappearance of the Neanderthals

The eagle talons are providing evidence as to why the species disappeared . Traditionally it was believed that Homo sapiens had out-competed the Neanderthals because they were intellectually superior. The evidence from the study of eagle bones would show that the Neanderthals were not dumb ape-men, but capable of sophisticated thought. They may also have influenced modern humans’ habit of hunting eagles , who “may have picked up the practice from watching their Neanderthal neighbors” according to Science Mag .

Neanderthals may have influenced modern human behavior hunting eagles and collecting eagle talons . ( Torkhov / Adobe)

The findings from the study are very important. They are changing our conception of Neanderthals, who were much more sophisticated than previously believed and who may have even influenced modern humans. It may also suggest that new theories regarding the extinction of these hominins are needed.

Top image: Golden eagle, majestic bird revered by Neanderthals who used eagle talons to make jewelry. Source: Paolo / Adobe.

By Ed Whelan

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