Increasingly, science is finding evidence that Neanderthal’s weren’t roughshod, bumbling subhumans, but rather an equal offshoot of modern humans that went extinct for indeterminate reasons. Case in point, researchers from the University of Kentucky have identified eagle talon artifacts that they believe to be the oldest ever example of jewelry, made some 130,000 years ago.
“It’s really a stunning discovery. It’s one of those things that just appeared out of the blue. It’s so unexpected and it’s so startling because there’s just nothing like it until very recent times to find this kind of jewelry,” said David Frayer, a professor emeritus of anthropology. “It’s associated with fossils that people don’t like to consider to be human.”
The talons, found in present-day Croatia, show clear signs of human manipulation – polishing and cut marks ere evident. The talons were actually first discovered about 100 years ago, but scientists at the time didn’t even consider the possibility of Neanderthals shaping them into something ornamental.
And yet, scientists are now positive that the talons date to at least 80,000 years before modern humans entered Europe, meaning only Neanderthals could have been responsible. Likely strung on a piece of sinew and worn for symbolic purposes, Frayer says there’s “no doubt” they were made by Neanderthals and that they were definitely worn as either a necklace or bracelet.
The previous record for oldest jewelry belonged to sets of shells found in Israel and Africa, believed to be fashioned into beads by modern humans in the region.
The discovery is another nail in the coffin for the image of the primitive, dim-witted Neanderthal. Previously, scientists doubted whether Neanderthals were capable of building rich, complex societies and cultures, but the evidence increasingly supports that view.
The idea is bolstered by the fact that recently, studies have found that Neanderthals aren’t all that genetically different from modern day humans. In fact, a study of present day European and Eurasian humans found that they possess genes unique to Neanderthals. This shows that not only did they coexist with early modern humans, but were capable of wooing them for breeding purposes (or at the very least, being wooed).
Now, scientists are increasingly unsure of why, exactly, Neanderthals went extinct. Traditionally, scientists believed that Neanderthals were simply out-manned by smarter, more adaptive modern humans. But, given that Neanderthals appear to have been just as intelligent (they may have even developed primitive religion), that may not be the case.
It’s more likely that Neanderthals disappeared due to a combination of climate change (Neanderthals were uniquely adept at surviving in a cold climate) and interbreeding. Either way, we’ll never look at “cave men” the same.
“Neanderthals are often thought of to be simple-minded mumbling, bumbling, stumbling fools,” Frayer said. “But the more we know about them the more sophisticated they’ve become.”