The feathery Neandertal

By Razib Khan | September 17, 2012 11:11 pm

Birds of a Feather: Neanderthal Exploitation of Raptors and Corvids:

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.

MORE ABOUT: Neandertal
  • Sandgroper

    Some papers on ‘modern’ Neanderthal behaviour definitely did pre-date the finding of Neanderthal admixture in modern humans (e.g. the admittedly inconclusive stuff about burials), but most of the papers that I can recall (use of ochre, eagle talons, hides for clothing) post-date it.

    Use of stone tools seems like a bit of a toss-up, given that chimpanzees make and use tools, but surely the earliest evidence of the controlled use of fire and cooking of food must be taken as evidence of some ‘modern’ or enhanced cognitive ability. Maybe that was the irreversible step, or one of them, given that cooking made a lot more digestible nutrition available which could have unshackled brain size increase. It would more or less fit with the graph, if I look at it imaginatively.

  • Eurologist

    Eh, the Schöningen Spears and related finds, as well as the deduced tent-like structures and paved circle and path of Bilzingsleben have long indicated that even heidelbergensis – with an average cranial capacity just below ours – had a mental capacity probably only dreamt of by some of our own.

    IIRC there is a long-known French Neanderthal site that shows some sort of a large fenced-in area with a substructure for living quarters and working areas.

    On the flip side, my recollection of Neanderthal cave sites is that they were extremely messy. As in, the entire floor is our garbage pale.

    PS: the spears were found 1994-1998 – not recently, as just wrongly reported by Science Daily and

  • Florida resident

    Dear Mr. Khan !

    1. Standard (albeit sincerely felt) best wishes and blessings.

    2. FYI (you may find it interesting):

    Age declared: 300,000 years. I have no way to judge the credibility of the claim.

    Your F.r.

  • Sandgroper

    While I think to mention it, Greg Laden’s work on cooking of food is interesting and pretty persuasive – it’s a subject he knows a lot about. It rendered a whole lot of stuff edible that was previously indigestible for humans (roots and tubers), made meat more easily digestible and therefore more nutritious, and the same with vegetables. Once ancient humans were locked into a more energetic and nutritious diet from controlling fire and cooking their food, I would imagine that would fairly quickly become an irreversible step – you raise the bar on the Malthusian limit, and you can’t go back to the old limit without a lot of people dying – plus there’s no incentive to go back. Bigger brains need more energy, and cooking was a way of supplying a lot more energy, instantly, once the penny dropped – and that didn’t necessarily need to be recognised for what it was, because most food tastes better cooked, and cooking renders some indigestible stuff edible and digestible. So once someone discovered cooking, possibly by accident, it must have become rapidly engrained – if you discover from dropping your lump of meat into the fire makes it a lot more delicious and a lot easier to chew, why do you ever go back to not dropping it in the fire, so long as you have access to controlled fire? You don’t. Cooking also gets rid of a whole load of disease because it knocks out dangerous microbes and parasites.

    So if we accept there was a big input to increase in human brain size about 1 million years ago that was the catalyst for evolving behaviour, then maybe you can tag that as the start of the development of modernity. And Neanderthals had fire and cooked, for a fact, as well as modern humans – the controlled use of fire pre-dates both of them, it was used by erectus.

    I don’t swallow everything Greg says, but that was good sound research work.

    So to me, that had to be a big step-jump advance for humans, including Neanderthals, who also cooked. The most ancient evidence for the controlled use of fire was about 1 million years ago, or possibly longer

  • ryan

    >all the parallel and reticulate branches.

    I like it.

  • Eurologist
  • Ozonator aka Robert Rhodes

    Active feather accumulation would put to rest the theory that Neandertals didn’t produce art in any form. Neandertal infrastructure in need of feathers would be minimally limited to children’s toys like missiles of mud balls with a feathered tail and tools for tickling. Feathers could be used for substrate for aquatic animals to lay eggs on for later consumption as suggested by the Aztec use of marginal regions. However, I have yet to hear or see Neandertals making use of ecotones and more aquatic areas.

  • Justin Giancola

    You might want to check this out Sandgroper.

  • Eurologist

    The fact that fire use evidence increases dramatically after ~400,000 ya in Europe may also be connected to the steep drop in temperature, then (and the fact that heidelbergensis’ brain capacity had increased to almost modern values, by then).

    IIRC, there is little evidence of habitual fire use by Asian erectus – but starting around ~200,000 ya there is such evidence in association with more modern (Mousterian-like) stone tool assemblages. This could indicate immigration of heidelbergensis-like people at the time.

  • Sandgroper

    Thanks JG.

    What an odd thing for John to write: “fire was invented” – no it wasn’t.

    I’m not really convinced by the temperature stuff – some natural bushfires in Australia get so hot that eucalyptus trees spontaneously combust. Finding nut shells, animal bones, etc on charcoal layers would seem like more convincing evidence of the controlled use of fire for cooking.

    Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and this is a notoriously difficult thing to establish. The lack of evidence of fire use during early occupation of rock shelters and caves where it is found in abundance later is pretty compelling; but if they used fire outside, e.g. at the kill site, then finding the evidence for that would be extraordinarly difficult, particularly as no one is looking for it.

    However, just taking their conclusions at face value, what has had me head scratching all along is why the apparent acceleration in the increase in brain size that is inferred roughly around 300,000 years ago. It would kind of make sense if that approximately coincided with the widespread systematic use of fire in Europe starting at about 400,000 years ago. That bend in the line is just a construction of course, you can fit different lines and put it in a lot of different places. Quoting Luke Jostins: “But, there does appear to be a change in the processes driving brain evolution somewhere between 200 and 400 kya.”

    That’s the head-scratcher.

    The other question is – what qualifies as widespread and systematic, where and by whom? The complete lack of evidence (so far) in Europe before 400,000 does seem pretty compelling – but then the recurring line I keep reading in anthropological papers all the time is “earlier than previously thought”.

    It is tempting to construct various theories and scenarios around the controlled use of fire though, given that it must have been a very big game-changer.

    Incidentally, there *is* very clear evidence of the increase in frequency of bushfires in Australia after human occupation that indicates systematic/deliberate burning by humans, contrary to what those authors say about evidence for this in Europe. It is one of the things that is suspected to have contributed to the extinction of megafauna in the Australian mainland after human occupation, and then again in Tasmania when it became accessible from the mainland due to drop in sea level .


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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