At Foradada Cave in northeast Spain, Neanderthal fossils lie mingled with stone tools and animal bones. Here, archaeologists recently unearthed the tip of a 39,000-year-old eagle toe with its claw missing. The phalanx (toe bone) came from the end of a Spanish imperial eagle’s big toe (the left one, to be exact), and cut marks along the length of the bone suggest that someone had cut off the large, curved talon at the end of the toe.
Archaeologist Antonio Rodriguez, of the Institute of Evolution in Africa, and his colleagues suggest that the missing talon ended up on a Neanderthal necklace.
The case of the missing jewelry
Along the top side of the toe (a proximal phalanx, if you’re an anatomy fan), 11 deep cut marks run diagonally across the bone; a shallower twelfth cut crosses the others, parallel with the bone’s length. Under the microscope, the cuts have v-shaped cross-sections, leaning to one side—the signature shape of tool-made cuts rather than predator teeth or damage from scraping against rocks or other bone. In fact, the cuts look almost exactly like the marks archaeologists left behind when they used stone tools to separate a raptor’s claw from its toe (because of course they did, for science).
Twenty-two other raptor toes found across southern Europe bear similar cut marks: an eagle-owl, a vulture, and 20 other eagles. But (with one exception), the talons all seem to have been taken somewhere else. Smaller birds seem not to have been given the talon-removal treatment, although their bones often show up at Neanderthal sites. Collectively, these objects offer a tantalizing hint that Neanderthals used eagle talons for , and it probably wasn’t strictly practical—which makes it pretty interesting.
Rodriguez and his colleagues suggest that the missing talons and the cut-marked toes are evidence that Neanderthals in southern Europe were making jewelry out of eagle talons. That sounds like a pretty big leap, considering the complete lack of eagle-talon necklaces in the archaeological record. The whole case hangs on the argument that the talons were obviously being collected, but they probably weren’t being used as food or tools.
If you can’t eat it, what’s it for?
Bird feet aren’t terribly nutritious—some cultures have tasty recipes involving the cartilage and tendons, but it still wouldn’t make much sense to remove the talons as part of meal prep. And there’s not much evidence that they ate the rest of the eagle, either. Neanderthals, especially those living close to the Mediterranean Sea, ate birds pretty often, but large raptors do not seem to have been regular items on the menu. Modern hunter-gatherers also occasionally eat large birds of prey, but only rarely.
And based on the things they left behind, Neanderthals don’t seem to have used many bone tools. There’s no evidence of smaller bird talons being used as awls or needles, and Rodriguez and his colleagues say it’s unlikely the Neanderthals would use only eagle talons for those purposes, when a range of sizes would make sense. The possibility of eagle talons as tools can’t be totally ruled out, but it doesn’t look very likely, either.
The explanation that’s left, according to Rodriguez and his colleagues, is that the use was artistic—another piece of evidence that Neanderthals were as intelligent and sophisticated as we are. They argue that Neanderthals at Foradada Cave and elsewhere across southern Europe used eagle talons the same way that others at sites like Cueva de los Aviones in Spain used seashell beads and ocher: as talismans or as visible markers of social standing, group membership, or some other aspect of a person’s identity. The talons may have been pendants, earrings, or just something people carried; without the talons themselves, there’s no way to know.
A glimpse into the Neanderthal mind
If the talons really were being removed to make jewelry, that brings Neanderthals in line with a lot of other groups of people around the world. Many cultures have viewed large raptors as symbols to represent power, nature, nobility, or military prowess, so it’s not that surprising that Neanderthals would, too.
“To know, or try to imagine, the significance for Neanderthals is out of science,” Rodriguez told Ars. “Unfortunately we don’t have a Rosetta Stone to decode the meaning of Middle Paleolithic talons.” But he plans to study eagle-talon ornaments from indigenous Australian and North American cultures to compare patterns of cut marks and wear, as well as how each culture used those objects and what they meant to the people who wore them.
Meanwhile, what do the missing talons and the incriminating cut marks tell us about Neanderthal culture? Well, for starters, it suggests that Neanderthals weren’t a cultural monolith; for tens of thousands of years, they lived in small groups scattered across almost the whole of Eurasia, but the missing eagle talons only show up in a relatively small area of southern Europe. Isotopic studies have already shown us that Neanderthals in different areas ate distinct foods, and we know that tool types varied from place to place (and over time). The talons suggest that groups living in different areas also used different types of symbols—and therefore, perhaps, had different ideas and beliefs. (That’s not surprising, of course, but it’s interesting to see that pattern in the archaeological record.)
If Rodriguez and his colleagues are right, the talons may also suggest that Neanderthal culture is older than some similar aspects of human culture. The earliest eagle toes with cut marks date to sometime between 120,000 and 130,000 years ago, which makes them slightly older than the perforated seashells at Homo sapiens sites in North Africa. Of course, that doesn’t mean that humans living in parts of Africa have symbolism and jewelry long before Neanderthals; it just means that these are the earliest examples we’ve found.
Critically, the timing means that Neanderthals probably developed symbolism on their own, instead of learning it from as some archaeologists have suggested (it’s possible and even likely that the two species swapped ideas and symbols once they met).
And it suggests that Neanderthal culture had some serious staying power. The Foradada Cave bones date to around 42,000 years ago—roughly 80,000 years later than the earliest examples, and around the time the last Neanderthals were losing their world to upstart newcomers, . In fact, if the missing eagle talon from Foradada Cave did become a necklace or other ornament, it may have been among the last ones the Neanderthals ever made, a final remnant of an ancient tradition, “surviving on [as] one of the last expressions of their material culture and probably extinguishing with them forever.”