Neanderthal craftsmen fashioned eight talons from at least three different white-tailed eagles into a necklace or bracelet, at a time when they were the only humans in Europe.
The discovery, reported today in the journal PLOS One, finally ends the idea that Neanderthals were too primitive to develop symbolic artefacts without the influence of modern humans in Europe.
Other Neanderthal artefacts found elsewhere in Europe had already suggested that Neanderthals were making jewelry a few millennia before modern humans arrived around 40,000 years ago, but the eagle claws predate their arrival by 90,000 years.
The talons were actually discovered 100 years ago at the Krapina Neanderthal site in Croatia, along with nearly a thousand human bones, several thousand animal bones, and at least a thousand tools, all from 120,000 to 130,000 years ago. But it was only recently that scientists recognised human cut marks on the talons and signs of wear showing that they once made up a single item of jewellery.
Four of the talons bear smoothed cut marks and three of the largest have small notches at roughly the same place along the same surface of the claw. This suggests they were tied with a twisted fibre or sinew filament. All eight talons have polished facets where sweat and other body fluids caused polishing.
Study co-author David Frayer, emeritus professor anthropology at the University of Kansas, said:
“It’s a really stunning discovery. It’s one of those things that just appeared out of the blue.
“These are the oldest [eagle talons] found and there are eight, all showing signs of wear, polish and/or manipulation, suggesting they were part of a jewellery composition, maybe a necklace, maybe a bracelet.
“People often argue that Neanderthals were mimicking modern humans instead of coming up with ornamental things on their own. In this case, there’s no doubt: There were only Neanderthals there, and only Neanderthal tools.”
“Eagle talons are not easy to find, my guess is that they were catching the birds live — which isn’t easy. There are talons from three or four different eagles here, and that represents a lot of planning and skill. They’re big birds, and they’re vicious when caught.
“Homo sapiens was not so unique in expressions of symbolism. A lot of evidence emerging in the last few years provides new information about the sophistication of Neanderthals, despite all the decades of prehistoric bias and discrimination against them.”