The necklace of the last Neanderthal


If we passed through the Madrid neighborhood of Malasaña With a pair of neanderthals dressed in the latest fashion, we would surely not notice anything strange. But if they crossed paths with us 50,000 years ago on the shore of the Manzanares RiverHow should we look so as not to get their attention?

Neanderthals are a controversial species. For some they represent an imperfect, brutal and failed humanity. For others, as human, sophisticated and intelligent as any of us.

For most of their existence, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens they did not differ too much. At least not in their material culture. But there are those who think that a “human revolution” suddenly occurred throughout the old world 50,000 years ago. This change led us sapiens to create myths, paint walls and decorate our bodies. They did not reach the cognitive Olympus. They missed the train of that revolution and succumbed.

But are we so sure about this?



A new ‘look’ for Neanderthals

The image we have of Neanderthals has changed radically in recent years. This change in perception is not a fad, but is based on scientific evidence.

The origin and authorship of the “cognitive revolution“They were very clear years ago, but now they are more diffuse. The scientific community discusses whether the ability to give inanimate objects” spirit “was exclusively ours. The answer seems to be in some small ornaments, possibly pendants or earrings. Neanderthals wore ornaments. Maybe they did before us. Maybe they even taught us a thing or two about them.

In addition to wearing ornaments, Neanderthals occasionally buried their dead, even with offerings like deer antlers and bison horns. They were authors of the first rock art. They engraved bones and stones, and collected eye-catching objects. They painted their bodies red and black with natural pigment and decorated themselves with animal skins and feathers. They probably even wore different hairstyles. His symbolic world was complex.

In fact, a recent study published this week in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution show the find of a deer bone that a Neanderthal carved 51,000 years ago in a cave in Germany.

Travel to the two shores of the Mediterranean

On Cova Foradada, near Barcelona, ​​the remains of an eagle from 39,000 years ago have been found. The Neanderthals left the bones there along with some flint knives after handling them. The shape of the stone tools suggests links to the later Cantabrian and French Neanderthals, the so-called “châtelperronienses“, already in transition to the Upper Paleolithic.

The cuts in one of the bones reveal that the objective of such manipulation was to obtain the claws. Once cut off, the rest of the leg was discarded in the cave. It is the first case and the only one documented so far in the Iberian Peninsula, but it has allowed us to delve into the symbolic world of Neanderthals and their connections with sapiens.



At ten other sites in southwestern Europe, from Croatia to southern France, modified raptor claws have been found to be used as personal adornments, probably hanging. Always in Neanderthal sites. They are always talons of great eagles. Pigargos, golden eagles and, in our case, Iberian imperial eagle. We think that this extreme selection could be due to the symbolic character that the Neanderthals of southern Europe attributed to these little “jewels” of their material culture. They didn’t use lion, bear or hawk claws and we don’t know why.

They began to use them 120,000 years ago, and continued to do so until the brink of their disappearance as a species. Probably, the meaning of these ornaments was passed down from generation to generation for millennia. At least in this region of southern Europe, since this type of evidence has not been found in other areas where we know that Neanderthals lived, such as the Middle East, Central Asia or Siberia.

In turn, claws used by modern humans as pendants have never been found until their arrival in Europe about 40,000 years ago. And that modern humans had already started using seashells as beads in Africa and the Middle East about 70,000 years ago. This allows us to raise several interesting hypotheses:

  1. Neanderthals began to wear ornaments before other human species.
  2. They did it independently, it doesn’t seem like they learned it from the Homo sapiens.
  3. They used eagle claws only in a very specific region, perhaps a cultural region.
  4. They did so for several millennia and the tradition passed from the Middle Palaeolithic to the Upper Palaeolithic Neanderthal cultures.
  5. Maybe they taught the first sapiens Europeans to include eagle claws among their ornaments.


Back on the banks of the Manzanares

About 35,000 years ago, Neanderthals became extinct. Before disappearing, they contributed their small genetic stream to the huge current sapiens that flooded Europe. The mixing of flows could have occurred because biologically we were very similar.

Archaeologists need more evidence to know how similar we were from a cognitive and cultural point of view. Meanwhile, if we travel back in time and meet a couple of Neanderthals on the shore of the Manzanares, my advice is to bring furs, feathers and a pendant made with eagle claws if we want to go unnoticed.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. You can read it here.

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