Skip to main content

All about the Avian: Neanderthals, feathers and symbolic practices

Ok so this is too cool not to write about straight away, although I have another post is waiting in the wings.
A new PLOS ONE paper, by a large team headed by Clive Finlayson, on Neanderthal exploitation of birds and feathers is really fascinating, and very convincing. There's been a flurry (or flutter?) of recent research looking at the reality of bird exploitation in the Middle Palaeolithic, and as the PLOS paper nicely summarises in its introduction, this is yet another of those things long held to be just too hard for Neanderthals to manage. Not only had the notion of using birds a food source been regarded as outside their capacities, but the possibility of other, more socially-motivated uses for avian resources was until recently not even considered.

Lammergeier (bearded vulture), one of the species Neanderthals were exploiting, possibly for symbolic use of feathers/talons. Image: By Richard Bartz, Munich aka Makro Freak via Wikimedia Commons creative commons licence
This is despite the knowledge for a long time that bird remains were present at many Middle Palaeolithic sites, and there was even some direct evidence of carcass processing, with a preserved feather barbule on a stone tool at Starosele, Crimea. Recently more evidence has been emerging that Neanderthals were sometimes eating birds as part of a wider diet than the cliche of daily mammoth steak, and occasionally doing so on quite a large scale. Yet with Neanderthals, there is always a very high level of proof needed before researchers will accept new practices or behaviours, especially involving complex cognition: corpses aren't enough, you really need the equivalent of a smoking gun. In archaeological terms this equates to direct and repeated examples of exploitation through evidence like cut-marks on bones, burned material, large amounts of particular bones being found in caves or some other fact that points to a) Neanderthals being responsible rather than nature such as other carnivores, and b) that it wasn't a one-off weirdo who unconsciously did something while bored one afternoon 50,000 years ago.

This new paper is great because it has both detailed new analysis of bird exploitation at a group of caves, and a wide survey of associations between Neanderthals and particular bird species across a large sample of sites. Fellow NeanderNerds will remember that two other papers were recently published talking about feather and claw use in the Middle Palaeolithic; this new paper is really expanding on these by looking on a larger scale to test if this is repeated across the Palaeolithic, and whether it's something Neanderthals especially were up to. In other words, it's doing *SCIENCE*!

The two chough species, Alpine and Red-billed. Image: Johann Friedrich Naumann (1780-1857), Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas, 2nd edition (1896-1905), Wikipedia, copyright expired.
The two earlier papers had found evidence of Neanderthals exploiting parts of birds that don't seem to have a dietary purpose. The first looked at evidence from Fumane Cave, Italy over 40,000 years ago (towards the end of the Middle Palaeolithic), where Neanderthals were processing the wing bones of choughs (small black members of crow-family with bright orange beaks living in cliff environments), wood pigeons and also several medium to very large raptors (birds of prey) including falcon, eagle and vultures. Repeated cut-marks on skeletal elements in patterns you'd expect from removal of the large, primary flight feathers and feet or claws were identified. Swiftly following this was a paper finding more evidence for claw removal, this time from Combe Grenal and Les Fieux, two French Middle Palaeolithic sites slightly older than Fumane. Here the focus seemed to be on large raptors again, with golden and white-tailed eagle talons showing cut-marks indicating removal.

The new paper by Finlayson et al. rightly looks to see whether these identified practices are part of a much wider pattern of behaviour in the Palaeolithic. It's really worth reading the paper as it's written in a very accessible style and the method and results are clear. To summarize, the team looked at all the records of raptors and corvids from Palaeolithic archaeological and similar-aged palaeontological (i.e. naturally accumulated) sites, totalling almost 1700. They found that:
a) There are more sites with high raptor and corvid species diversity amongst the archaeological sample compared to the palaeontological sample; conversely more palaeontological than archaeological sites have the lowest species diversity or none represented at all.
b) More Middle Palaeolithic than Upper Palaeolithic sites have high species diversity.
c) Overall, the species most frequently over-represented at the archaeological (especially Middle Palaeolithic) sites are scavenging and colonial cliff-nesting species (vultures, some corvids, some falcons and choughs), which also have generally dark flight feathers.

 Zooming into one group of Middle Palaeolithic caves at Gibraltar, Spain, the team looked in more detail at the kind of interactions happening between Neanderthals and these groups of birds. They found a much larger proportion of bird wings were present than other (meatier) parts of the body, that the wing bones had more cut-marks than other skeletal elements, and that of the the bones within the wing, those where the large feathers attach had the most cut-marks. This occurs in more than one of the Gibraltar sites, and at one of the caves, in more than one level. There is some evidence for consumption (a sparrowhawk), but is appears to be incidental to the processing of wings for feather removal.
The authors bring together all this data to suggest, in common with the Fumane and Combe Grenal/Les Fieux papers, that Neanderthals were collecting feathers and sometimes claws from particular birds species (not typically used for food) for symbolic purposes, most likely as personal ornamentation. They back this up by briefly discussing the extensive evidence from historical and ethnographic records of modern human use of feathers.

Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar. The sea would have been much further from the cave during Neanderthal occupation. Image: Nic Flemming, at (open access)

I do have some questions about the paper. First, the number of sites looked at is impressively large, but I'd be interested to know the if the types of sites are different between the palaeontological and archaeological samples. This is important, because if most of the archaeological sites are caves or rockshelters, but the palaeontological sites are a mix of these and open-landscape situations, then there's potential for an over-representation of the corvid/raptors in the archaeological sample, purely because they're in the right environment. I've checked the supplementary information, but it's not possible to tell from the downloadable excel file provided, and the original online database the authors took their data from is unavailable.
I'd also like to pull apart the detail on the over-representation of particular species at the archaeological sites shown in Table 1. For example, are there any ecological factors, other than cliff habitat preference, that might explain why some of the raptors feature more frequently? Also, of the cliff-nesting non-scavengers, Red-billed chough are found significantly often in Palaeolithic sites, and also in Middle Palaeolithic compared to Upper Palaeolithic sites, but this is not equally the case for Alpine chough.

If I'm being picky, then perhaps the authors' conclusions go a little far in implying that their research demonstrates Neanderthals had comparable symbolic cognition to modern humans in the Upper Palaeolithic. Although they make a good case that this type of bird exploitation reflects symbolic behaviour in modern humans, we can't be *certain* this was true in the Middle Palaeolithic. However, definitive 'proof' about past social practices is rare indeed in archaeology, and interpretation of the evidence is about making informed inferences based on hypotheses being tested against data
The use of feathers and claws is tricky to assign definitively to some kind of symbolic practice, because like pigments, it's possible to suggest other uses. Talons could feasibly be used as tools, although when you have stone in abundance, it's difficult to know what an eagle claw could do better than a sharp flake. Primary flight feathers aren't much use as insulating material or as bedding as the authors point out, but they could have been used as some kind of camouflage on top of skin clothing for hunting, as flight aids glued onto throwing spears with birch pitch (both tecnologies in use from at least 300,000 years ago), or even for something as dull as a hearth-side brush for clearing ash: there were certainly some cave-proud Neanderthals around 40-60 Ka at Kebara cave, Israel. However, there's no direct evidence for any of these uses either.  

It's important to be clear that I think Neanderthals did have a social life that they mediated through material symbols. I include stone tools in this, both the techniques of production and also some types of artefacts such as handaxes that retain 'shape' information despite alteration in form through repeated re-sharpening. More and more evidence is emerging (partly because researchers are becoming more open to the idea) for Middle Palaeolithic practices that in modern human contexts would be claimed as symbolic. There are many instances of mineral pigment utilisation, including a liquid mix at least 200,000 years old, and pigment/ mineral mixes from Cueva de los Aviones and Cueva Anton, Spain; also the collection of objects which have no obvious 'practical' function, such as the perforated marine shells from the same two sites. The scales are certainly now tipped in favour of Neanderthals having a symbolic material culture, although of a different flavour to that found in the European Upper Palaeolithic, and lacking any representational imagery. In this  context, personal adornment with feathers and claws is no less likely than more quotidian uses for these materials. We should also remember that evidence for consumption of corvid or raptor species does not rule out socially-symbolic behaviour: ritualised eating of non-typical animal species could have been an activity occurring alongside or as part of the use of feathers and claws as ornaments.

Neanderthal wearing feather, claws and pigment. Image: Mauro Cutrona, source (no copyright information)
One intriguing thing that comes out of this new large-scale research is the apparent focus on bird species with dark plumage. It might be a leap, but it's interesting that while some red/orange pigments were used by Neanderthals in Spain and Romania, they seem to also have liked black pigments, most clearly seen in the hundreds of utilised manganese pieces from Pech de l'Aze, France, with ends that have been rubbed on something soft. Although black as a colour features in Upper Palaeolithic painted art on cave walls (both from manganese, charcoal and other base substances), black pigment does not seem to have been used as much in other contexts, for example on artefacts or in burial contexts. Perhaps the preference for dark feathers may be more evidence that Neanderthals had a different symbolic 'code' to people in the Upper Palaeolithic, and indeed many modern human societies where red is often dominant.

Rubbed manganese pieces from Pech de l'Aze, France. From Soressi & d'Errico, 2007.

In any case, it's great to be writing about something this exciting, combining Neanderthals AND birds, and it will certainly be a major theme in the book I'm writing, Dawn Chorus in Eden: Humanity and Birds in Prehistory (Bloomsbury Publishing). It's also a great 'appetiser' just before I head off to Bordeaux for the second meeting of the European Society for Study of Human Evolution (ESHE). I'll hopefully be tweeting while I'm there (follow #ESHE12), and with luck there'll be some nice blog-posts to follow, full of more Neanderthal delights!


Kimberly Brown said…
Hi, my name is Dr Kimberly Brown - I'm te second author of the PLOS paper - and this was based on my data collection for my PhD on the use of small game by Neanderthals - for consumption as well as secondary uses such as decoration - I'd be more than happy to address any issues or queries regarding this research and paper
Hi Kimberly, thanks for taking the time to comment. The paper is impressive, and exactly the right way to address a question like this. My only query was what were the percentages of cave/rockshelters vs. open-air sites for both site categories (archaeological and palaeontological)?
Thanks for reading the post!

Popular posts from this blog

Wherefore Art Thou, Neanderthal?

Adventures in Silcrete: "It's flint Jim, but not as you know it!"

Something that everyone who works in the archaeology of deep prehistory has to get to grips with is the technology of stone tools, or lithics. This includes thinking about the ways in which people made their tools, which techniques they chose to use, etc. It also means that Palaeolithic archaeologists, alongside needing to know stuff about climatology, palaeontology, and ecology, need to delve into the science of geology. People in prehistory might not have understood the origins of different kinds of rocks, but they certainly appreciated the diversity in stone qualities, not only between very different rock types but also within geological/mineral categories.

These two Neandertal tools that I studied for my PhD, called handaxes, are both very finely worked, but made from completely different rocks. The one on the left (Castle Lane, Bournemouth) is made from Cretaceous flint found in the south and east of Britain, and the one on the right (Coygan Cave) from rhyolite, a volcanic stone…

Geological Road Trip: Volcanic landscapes of the Massif Central

Geology and geography are fundamental to archaeologists in understanding the landscape contexts that people of the past lived within. While climate and environments have drastically altered over the time span of the Palaeolithic, the topography often, on a broad scale, remains relatively similar. Erosion can be extensive, river systems can change course (the Thames used to flow much further north than it now does for example), and the great depth of sediment accumulation in some areas changed local situations. But the big stuff made of rock like plateaux, mountains and watersheds have remained relatively static over the time hominins have been around. There are exceptions to this however, primarily in the form of volcanism and tectonic action, and the region I'm working in is a textbook example. Here in the Massif Central, there is a long history of volcanic action of many types, the most recent of which occurred less than 5000 years ago- well within the history of human settleme…