Thursday, March 15, 2012

About those Neanderthal eagle talon ornaments

The recent paper by Morin and Laroulandie (2012) in PLoS ONE has been creating a bit of a buzz, suggesting as it does 'non-nutritional' and possibly symbolic use of eagle talons at two Mousterian sites in France. The authors rightly emphasize that the discovery of several eagle talons bearing cut marks from La Ferrassie and Les Fieux articulates quite well with the evidence from Fumane that Neanderthals purposefully harvested visually striking feathers from a variety of bird species, especially raptors. Hawks underscores their observation that this behavior at La Ferrassie likely goes back almost to 100kya, pushing back the age for potentially symbolic use of bird parts by Neanderthals considerably. In my mind, the study also shows how productive it can be to take a new look at old collections.

While I think the paper reports some very interesting observations and that it makes a solid case overall, I'm left wondering about two things:

1) How were these things used as ornaments? They're not pierced, nor do they display no obvious wear traces from having been worn suspended on strings or thongs. With purported feathers, it's one thing. But these things puzzle me a bit from that standpoint, since even the shells found in Aterian and other MSA sites show some kind of wear from having been strung and worn. 

2) I would have loved to see better shots of the cut marks. By this, I mean microscopic shots of the internal morphology of some of these marks themselves to show unambiguously that they were made by stone tools? Don't get me wrong, they certainly look like cutmarks, at least superficially, and their standardized placement on multiple specimens strongly supports the authors' claim. But as the controversy over the Dikika cutmarks has shown all too well, multiple factors can result in marks that can look like those produced by stone tools, so why not rule it out with some good photographs in this case?

Be it as it may, these new data build on the growing corpus of evidence for the use of things like feathers, ochre, manganese and shells as ornaments by Neanderthals well before the arrival of modern humans on the scene. All in all, it also suggests that different groups of Neanderthals likely used different types of ornaments and coloring materials depending on the ecological setting and available animal and mineral resources.


Morin E , Laroulandie V (2012) Presumed Symbolic Use of Diurnal Raptors by Neanderthals. PLoS ONE 7(3): e32856. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0032856

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wonder... has the idea of these talons having been used as 'piercers' (as of humans) ever been thought of and/or ruled out? Talons are SHARP! One can adorn ones self quite nicely without the need to hang or pierce an object, especially if said object is sharp enough...

Just a thought