September 18, 2012

Overwhelming evidence of the use of decorative feathers by Neanderthals

Neanderthal with feathers (Gibraltar Museum)
This research should delight all those interested in the so-called "modern human behavior" or "symbolic behavior", and specially those who emphasize that Neanderthals were at similar levels as is our species, H. sapiens, in this aspect.

Clive Finlayson et al., Birds of a Feather: Neanderthal Exploitation of Raptors and Corvids. PLoS ONE 2012. Open access ··> LINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045927]


The hypothesis that Neanderthals exploited birds for the use of their feathers or claws as personal ornaments in symbolic behaviour is revolutionary as it assigns unprecedented cognitive abilities to these hominins. This inference, however, is based on modest faunal samples and thus may not represent a regular or systematic behaviour. Here we address this issue by looking for evidence of such behaviour across a large temporal and geographical framework. Our analyses try to answer four main questions: 1) does a Neanderthal to raptor-corvid connection exist at a large scale, thus avoiding associations that might be regarded as local in space or time?; 2) did Middle (associated with Neanderthals) and Upper Palaeolithic (associated with modern humans) sites contain a greater range of these species than Late Pleistocene paleontological sites?; 3) is there a taphonomic association between Neanderthals and corvids-raptors at Middle Palaeolithic sites on Gibraltar, specifically Gorham's, Vanguard and Ibex Caves? and; 4) was the extraction of wing feathers a local phenomenon exclusive to the Neanderthals at these sites or was it a geographically wider phenomenon?. We compiled a database of 1699 Pleistocene Palearctic sites based on fossil bird sites. We also compiled a taphonomical database from the Middle Palaeolithic assemblages of Gibraltar. We establish a clear, previously unknown and widespread, association between Neanderthals, raptors and corvids. We show that the association involved the direct intervention of Neanderthals on the bones of these birds, which we interpret as evidence of extraction of large flight feathers. The large number of bones, the variety of species processed and the different temporal periods when the behaviour is observed, indicate that this was a systematic, geographically and temporally broad, activity that the Neanderthals undertook. Our results, providing clear evidence that Neanderthal cognitive capacities were comparable to those of Modern Humans, constitute a major advance in the study of human evolution.

In brief: Neanderthals did use feathers from raptor and corvid avians and used them with almost all certainty for decorative, ritual or other cultural purposes.

Figure 2. Distribution of archaeological and paleontological sites with 50% or more of the suite of 18 raptor-corvid species identified in the text.
See also articles at: Pileta[es/en], BBC.


  1. This is very interesting, as was the recent publcation of discussion of whether Neandertal had lateralized brains, as we do. I suspect that over time we will come to the view they were more like us than different. In my opinion, people tend to emphasize (or assume)differences. While admitting there is a certain archealogical record that goes along with Neandertal, a lot of our image of Neandertal seems to be based on assumption.

    1. Now that you mention, I read something in the last weeks about lateralization and it seems to be universal in at least vertebrates: even fishes have it! Can't find it right now however.

  2. It was reported recently (August 24) on LiveScience, but the story is older. LiveScience also ran an article about it on April 29, 2011. The scholarly article on which the LiveScience piece is based was published April 14, 2011 in a journal called Laterality. Right-handedness was inferred from scratch marks left by tools on the teeth.

    The April 29, 2011 article claims that only human beings show evidence of favoring one hand. It also states this is some evidence toward use of language.

    Of course, the original article is not without some critics. But it is interesting.

  3. "I suspect that over time we will come to the view they were more like us than different".

    And so the wheel turns. Years ago that was the accepted position but then it became fashionable to emphasise the difference.

  4. Interpreting the same data in another light, one could fairly use this study as yet another example of how stunning static Neanderthals were culturally. Over hundreds of thousands of years and across their entire geographic range, Neanderthals collected the very same bird feathers from the very same kinds of birds.

    In contrast, in the South Levantine Iron Age alone - less than 2% of the time period and less than 5% of the geographic range over which Neanderthals showed consistency - modern humans went from using one set of birds (including corvids aka crows) for sacrificial ritual purposes, to making corvids taboo for ritual purposes and instead using doves (which hadn't been used previously) for sacrificial ritual purposes, to no longer sacrificing birds ritually at all.

    I don't disagree that Neanderthals had a lot of brain power compared to prior hominins and non-hominins, probably comparable to modern humans in raw processing power. But, what Neanderthals seem to lack, at least until there is a credible reason to believe that there was some level of modern human introgression into the the Neanderthal gene pool, is the kind of cultural plasticisty and innovation that you see in modern humans. Even during their period of co-existence, for example, modern humans improved or at least substantially changed their lithic and bone tool sets multiple times and with regional variations, while the Neanderthal had pretty much just two archaeological cultures, one of which may have been due to imitation of modern humans or introgression of modern human genes.

    1. While is still possible that Neanderthals might have been more conservative than H. sapiens, your comparison demonstrates nothing because you must compare similar things and the Iron Age and the Middle Paleolithic are not at all comparable.

      You should compare maybe Neanderthal cultural behavior in the MP/early UP with Sapiens' cultural behavior in a similar sized region in the same period, say East Asia or South Asia or even all Asia maybe.

      The comparison would be indecisive at best.

      I personally think that their biggest disadvantage was to be comparatively slow and heavy, so while they expanded to West and Central Asia, our ancestors took all Tropical and East Asia, as well as Sahul and, of course, all Africa. And while their strength allowed them to fence us off initially very well in case of conflict, their heavy build came with an extra energetic cost and surely gave them less efficiency in the use of ranged weaponry.

      In brief, we walked faster and farther, being able to walk or run more than them every day and requiring significantly less calories instead (general better efficiency). And when it came to fight, they did very well when it was about wrestling and melee combat but could not compete anymore as soon as we learned to shoot and run.

      No need to invoke significant mental differences which may have existed or not. We must admit that chimpanzees and bonobos do have major psycho-social-emotional differences but these are not really important when it comes to general cognition, or the animal equivalent of IQ. And their divergence time is probably more comparable to that of us with H. erectus than with Neanderthals.

      "Neanderthal had pretty much just two archaeological cultures"...

      Mousterian is not a single techno-culture but a whole array of them. That we do not use but a single catch-all term does not mean much. Don't forget Micoquian and the various early UP cultures that may be of Neanderthal making. But for example I was reminded the other day of at least two instances in which Neanderthals invented the "mode 4" (laminar volumetric tech, or Upper Paleolithic style of doing things) but they just abandoned them later on for some reason.

      I would say that still there seems to be some more diversity and tendency to innovation among our species but not sufficiently clear, everything else equal, to jump to conclusions easily.

  5. "But, what Neanderthals seem to lack, at least until there is a credible reason to believe that there was some level of modern human introgression into the the Neanderthal gene pool, is the kind of cultural plasticisty and innovation that you see in modern humans".

    I remember reading years ago (so it may not be relevant) that Neanderthals existed in small family groups. They may not have had wide social connections. Whereas 'modern humans' had wider social connections (tribes). This may have been a contributing factor in the rapid expanse of new technologies through the modern human population, and the 'more diversity and tendency to innovation among our species' as opposed to the static Neanderthal technology. It also enabled modern humans to survive difficult times as they could maintain contact with other groups living in more favoured environments.

    "No need to invoke significant mental differences which may have existed or not."


    1. There are several ways you could get to great innovations in modern humans.

      One, which is supported by primate "ethnography," is that innovation is overwhelming the product of individuals at the high end of the IQ scale (geniuses), and that while average IQ may be been similar between Neanderthals and modern humans, that modern humans may have had a higher standard deviation than modern humans greatly enhancing the relative proportion of geniuses.

      Perhaps a greater standard deviation in IQ is due to their more recent origins closer to enhanced African genetic diversity and long periods in which Neanderthal populations were small relatively inbred and the product of more and more deep historical bottlenecks in population.

    2. I'd agree that Neanderthals and other Eurasian hominins were likely to have less genetic diversity than African ones (i.e. our ancestors). However that is also true of historical Europeans or Chinese (or endogamous minorities like Jews) for example and it does not seem to have been any mayor handicap hindering innovation at all, nor has the Neanderthal introgression in Eurasians acted as handicap of any sort that we know.

      I feel that genetic diversity is overrated. Of course it is a generally good thing but it tends to lose relevance as it goes bigger and bigger in a peculiar version of the economic principle of decreasing productivity.

  6. Hi, Maju,
    The Subversive Archaeologist has an admittedly dismissive post at In its defense I'd just say that it presents very good reasons why one ought to dismiss Finlayson et al.'s effort as wrong-headed and poorly conceived.

    1. Hi, Rob. It is an interesting criticism and one that would seem to apply equally to previous research reaching to the same conclusions in Fumane, etc., like Peresani 2011, see also this extensive entry by Julien Riel-Salvatore on the matter a year ago.

      I have two criticisms to the criticism on first look:

      1. How sure you are (I'm assuming that you are the author of The Subversive Archaeologist, correct?) that great avians' wing feathers are so easy to detach? I have never ever done that myself nor watched anyone doing it but I can only imagine that it's not the same as chicken feathers, birds that don't even almost fly. Also even if the major wing and tail feathers can be detached so easily, do they go out in full or broken?

      2. Even if the criticism is 100% correct, which is the alternative explanation then? I remember that when similar marks were found in animal bones in Australopithecine contexts, which arguably proved that these extinct relatives used stone tools, maybe simple flakes, some people argued they could be crocodile bites or cattle stomping on the bones.

      But personally I looked at them from all angles and they still looked like precise cut marks to me. Similar to those found in these avian bones in fact.

      So are you arguing for a pack of wildebeest running through these caves, stomping on those bones? I can only imagine that you are not. Then what caused those so extremely unnecessary cut marks?

      I think that your criticism is plausible, reasonable but insufficient, specially because you seem to lack of (1) an empirical frame on how eagle and corvid wing feathers can be extracted with perfect conservation (as to be used for decoration), and you also lack of (2) an alternative explanation for those cut marks.

    2. I'm going to comment in TSA because I think I found the weakness of your reasoning: these are not regular feathers but flight feathers, which are attached directly to the "arm" of the bird: the ulna (a bone of the forearm) and the manus (the equivalent of our hands). That explains why cuts were necessary to properly extract the feathers, which are strongly attached as they are fundamental for the survival of flying birds and must be individually rotated.

  7. "these are not regular feathers but flight feathers"

    Flight (and tail) feathers are much more useful as decoration than body feathers. They are bigger for a start.

    "I have never ever done that myself nor watched anyone doing it but I can only imagine that it's not the same as chicken feathers, birds that don't even almost fly".

    Even chicken tail and flight feathers are not easy to pluck. Easy, of course, if you immerse the bird in very hot water, but that option is unlikely to have been available to Neanderthals. I have plucked many chickens and ducks in my lifetime.


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