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.
Not to be too skeptical, but has anyone done an analysis of a possible change in the nature of publications about the cognitive capacities of Neandertals since it was established that there is a high likelihood of admixture between that lineage and ours (i.e., that that lineage is to some extent ours)? This is where I have to point to Luke Jostins’ loess curve illustrating the increase in cranial capacity of hominins over the past few million years. As Luke notes “brain size increases gradually in all lineages.”
This isn’t to deny that there seem some qualitative differences between the descendants of anatomically modern humans and other hominins. Neandertals, Denisovans, etc., never made it to the New World or Oceania. But there are differences, and there are differences. One model which was rather popular, and which I tacitly accepted, is that modern humans, the “descendants of Eve,” are sui generis. Somehow, somewhere, ~50-100,000 years ago a lineage of geniuses came upon the scene and swept all others away. I don’t accept this proposition anymore. Rather, it may be that 1-2 million years ago the hominin lineages took some irreversible step, and all the parallel and reticulate branches were hurtling toward a new evolutionary equilibrium.