Neanderthals were into birds

Well, into their feathers anyway. Thanks to a new study out this week, we now have paleontological proof that Neanderthals collected birds for more than just food. They probably used bird feathers for decoration – just like we do – suggesting that we aren’t the only hominid species to have developed an artistic culture1.

The research team – led by Clive Finlayson – used a combination of archaeological and paleontological evidence from several different sites where Neanderthals lived during the Paleolithic, ranging from Gibraltar in southern Spain to sites in the near East. For each site, the researchers tallied up the number of different bird species found in the fossil record at the same time and place as the Neanderthals, and they discovered that certain species were most frequent. The most common species were raptors (like vultures, kites and golden eagles) and corvids (like crows and choughs). Crucially, the researchers found that the remains of these particular species are far more abundant at the Neanderthal dwellings than they are at other paleontological sites – suggesting that the bird bones were there for a reason.

Some more detailed forensic work at a few key Neanderthal caves revealed that many of the bones had cut marks made by stone tools. Most importantly, at three particular caves, 337 of the 604 raptor and corvid bones were wing bones – and wings have almost no meat. This means that these birds were probably not harvested for food. Just about the only thing the wings would have been good for is their smooth, stiff flight feathers – the kind that seem like they’re worth keeping when you come across one on the ground. You wouldn’t use them to stuff a cushion, but they do nicely for adornment.

We don’t yet know what the Neanderthals were making with the feathers – Headdresses? Costumes? Millinery? – or how they used them. Were these ornaments part of a religious tradition, or perhaps a way to impress mates? It would be interesting to know how this fits into the development of more sophisticated clothing, since preparing animal hides was an important and physically taxing part of Neanderthal life.

This study provides more proof that a group thought to be a whole other species in the genus Homo was as sophisticated as we were back then (around 30-60 thousand years ago). Other recent discoveries suggest that Neanderthals also used shells and red pigments for decoration. At this point, it’s not certain who started using plumage for artistic reasons first. It’s possible that Neanderthals and ancestral humans both took up feather work independently, but it’s also possible that some sharing went on. According to the authors of the new study, the fossil record suggests that we may have learned this trick from our Neanderthal cousins.

I think one of the most incredible parts of this study is that the paleontologists were able to identify all of the different bird species found at the Neanderthal sites – and their detailed inventory demonstrates that Neanderthals were using dark feathered birds. This may have been due to convenience. Alternatively, they may have preferred dark feathers for artistic reasons.

It’s also worth noting that feather culture probably came first in an even simpler group: the bowerbirds of Australia and New Guinea. Like the satin bowerbird shown here, male bowerbirds often use feathers to decorate the courts that they build to attract females. And like us, bowerbirds have specific colours in mind: for example, satin bowerbirds prefer blue. So we aren’t the only ones with a consistent decorative style.

Further Reading

1. Finlayson et al. 2012. PLoS ONE. 7: e45927.