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Neanderthal Jewelry Is Just as Fiercely Cool as You’d Imagine

A re-examination of a cave find indicates that the early human species sported eagle talons like some kind of prehistoric punk rockers

An image of white-tailed eagle talons from the Krapina Neandertal site in present-day Croatia, dating to approximately 130,000 years ago. Scientists theorize that they may be part of a necklace or bracelet. (Luka Mjeda, Zagreb)
smithsonian.com

Neanderthals have long been characterized as bumbling early cousins of modern humans—incapable of the sophistication that would characterize the more beautiful-browed homo sapiens. But the more we learn about Neaderthals, the clearer it is that these assumptions aren’t all that correct. They might even have argued that their own brows were more aesthetically pleasing: they did have some sense of style, if a new investigation is any indication. Artifacts pulled from a cave over a century ago demonstrate not only Neanderthal’s bold fashion choicces, but also their likely ability revere symbols and plan ahead.

A team of scientists released a study of eight prehistoric eagle talons that were found to have deliberate cut markings, indicating that they were once strung together as a necklace or bracelets. The specimens were found last century in cave in Croatia believed to have housed Neanderthals over 130,000 years ago. Though the talons had been previously examined, scientists only recently noticed the carvings and say that they date back to 80,000 years before homo sapiens even made it to Europe.

Altogether, the fierce-looking talons have a total of 21 cut markings between them, reports the Independent, and “have polished surfaces caused by one talon rubbing against another,” which suggests to scientists that they were indeed worn.

“It’s a really stunning discovery. It’s one of those things that just appeared out of the blue,” anthropologist David Frayer, one of the study’s lead authors, told the Independent. “It’s so unexpected and it’s so startling because there’s just nothing like it until very recent times to find this kind of jewelry. It’s associated with fossils that people don’t like to consider to be human."

The discovery, published this week in PLOS One, offers a new window into the lives and cognitive abilities of Neanderthals. Frayer notes that, in particular, the talons demonstrate that homo sapiens weren’t the only human species to “recognize the symbolic beauty of body ornaments.” Furthermore, it shows that Neanderthals were capable of deliberate planning and forethought.

“We do not know how they were acquired, but eagles are rare in the environment, not easy to find or catch, and likely pretty vicious once caught,” Frayer said told the Independent. So, catching and killing the birds would have taken sophistication and deliberation that, until recent research, Neanderthals weren’t thought able of performing.

The talons also demonstrate a prehistoric style that even modern fashionistas might find savagely chic—but we doubt they’d be willing to put the work in to get achieve it.

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