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Caveman Couture: Neandertals Rocked Dark Feathers

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Neandertal wearing feathers

Artist's conception of a Neandertal's feather decorations. Image: Antonio Monclova

GIBRALTAR—Jordi Rosell removes a thumbnail-size piece of reddish-tan bone from a sealed plastic bag, carefully places it under the stereomicroscope and invites me to have a look. Peering through the eyepieces I see two parallel lines etched in the specimen’s weathered surface. Tens of thousands of years ago, in one of the seaside caves located here on the southernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula, a Neandertal nicked the bone—a bit of shoulder blade from a bird known as the red kite–with a sharp stone tool in those two spots. Though it would hardly merit a second glance from the casual observer, this cutmarked fragment is helping to deliver what could be the coup de grâce to some enduring ideas about the cognitive abilities of our closest relatives.

Experts agree that Neandertals hunted large game, controlled fire, wore animal furs and made stone tools. But whether they also engaged in activities deemed to be more advanced has been a matter of heated debate. Some researchers have argued that Neandertals lacked the know-how to effectively exploit small prey, such as birds, and that they did not routinely express themselves through language and other symbolic behaviors. Such shortcomings put the Neandertals at a distinct disadvantage when anatomically modern humans availed of these skills invaded Europe—which was a Neandertal stronghold for hundreds of thousands of years—and presumably began competing with them, so the story goes.

Cutmarks on griffon vulture ulna

Cutmarks made by a Neandertal on a wing bone from a griffon vulture. Image: Clive Finlayson

Over the past couple decades hints that Neandertals were savvier than previously thought have surfaced, however. Pigment stains on shells from Spain suggest they painted, pierced animal teeth from France are by all appearances Neandertal pendants. The list goes on. Yet in all of these cases skeptics have cautioned that the evidence is scant and does not establish that such sophistication was an integral part of the Neandertal gestalt.

The cutmarked bones from Gibraltar as well as bird remains from other sites could force them to rethink that view. In a paper published September 17 in PLOS ONE, paleontologist Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum, Rosell, a zooarchaeologist at Rovira I Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain, and their colleagues report on their analyses of animal remains from 1699 fossil sites in Eurasia and north Africa spanning the Pleistocene epoch. Their results show that Neandertals across western Eurasia were strongly associated with corvids (ravens and the like) and raptors (vultures and their relatives)—more so than were the anatomically modern humans who succeeded them.

Bonelli's eagle

Bonelli's eagle is one of the raptor species Neandertals hunted, presumably for its dark feathers. Image: Clive Finlayson

The Neandertals seem unlikely to have hunted these birds for food. People today do not eat corvids or raptors. Moreover, if the Neandertals did hunt the birds for food, one would expect to see signs of butchery on those bones linked to fleshy parts of the bird, such as the breastbone. Yet the team’s study of the bird bones from the Gibraltar sites found the cutmarks on wing bones, which have little meat—a sign that the Neandertals targeted the birds for their feathers rather than their meat.

Exactly what the Neandertals were doing with the feathers is unknown, but because they specifically sought out birds with dark plumage, the researchers suspect that our kissing cousins were festooning themselves with the resplendent flight feathers. Not only are feathers beautiful, they are also lightweight, which makes them ideal for decoration, Finlayson points out. “We don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many modern human cultures across the world have used them.”


Neandertals captured ravens and other corvids, too. Image: Clive Finlayson

The Neandertals may have separated the plumage from the wing bones while keeping it intact and used the skin as a sort of cape or headpiece, depending on the size of the bird. Finlayson says preliminary experimental evidence shows that removal of the plumage in this way using flint tools creates cut marks similar to those observed on the ancient bird bones recovered from the Gibraltar caves.

This is not the first time scientists have found evidence that Neandertals used feathers. In 2011 a team of Italian researchers reported on cutmarked bird bones from Neandertal levels in Fumane Cave in northern Italy that revealed this practice. But some researchers dismissed the find as an isolated phenomenon. The new findings suggest that feathers were de rigueur for thousands of years not only among Gibraltar’s Neandertals but quite possibly for Neandertals across Eurasia.

Clive Finlayson wearing griffon plumage

Clive Finlayson models griffon plumage. The ulna was removed from the carcass with a flint tool and the feathers left intact. Most of the birds Neandertals used were smaller and thus perhaps better suited to headdresses. Image: Kate Wong

Although archaeologists have often argued that Neandertals did not have the necessary technology to hunt birds, Rosell points out that many of these species are easily caught with bare hands. Vultures, for example, will hang out on tree branches in the morning, waiting for a wind to carry them away. During this time they are quite vulnerable to being captured. Neandertals could have also caught their favorite birds of prey while the birds were busy feeding on carcasses, he says. In addition, Gibraltar is on a key migratory route for many species, and the birds often arrive tired from the shifting winds. Perhaps Neandertals took advantage of this weakness.

Speakers at a conference on human evolution held in Gibraltar last week extolled the study, and agreed with the team’s interpretation of the remains as evidence that Neandertals adorned themselves with the feathers as opposed to using them for some strictly utilitarian purpose. If the cutmarked bones from Gibraltar had been found in association with early modern humans, researchers would assume that the feathers were symbolic, says paleoanthropologist John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin notes. The same standards should apply to Neandertals. “We’ve got to now say that Neandertals were using birds. Period. They were using them a lot. They were wearing around their feathers,” he comments. “They clearly cared. A purely utilitarian kind of person does not put on a feathered headdress.”

Archaeologist John Shea of Stony Brook University observed that the preference for dark feathers mirrors the Neandertals’ apparent preference for black manganese pigment, which is known from a few sites. Early Homo sapiens, in contrast, appears to have liked red pigment. “What our ancestors liked about red these Neandertals evidently liked about black. And both are very compelling kinds of colors,” Shea says. “It means they had color symbolism. They were able to imbue colors in their natural world with some kind of arbitrary meaning.”

“[This] is something many of us thought was unique to Homo sapiens,” Shea adds. “But [it] turns out to be either convergently evolved with Neandertals or more likely something phylogenetically ancient we simply haven’t picked up in the more ancient archaeological record. It’s probably something [our common ancestor] Homo heidelbergensis did, we just haven’t found archaeological evidence for it yet.”


Kate Wong About the Author: Kate Wong is an editor and writer at Scientific American covering paleontology, archaeology and life sciences. Follow on Twitter @katewong.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. dicklipke 5:30 pm 09/18/2012

    We have clearly under estimated our distant cousins intelligence and love of nature as a whole. I’m sure there will be evidence of a much more advanced society than we want to admit to.Wonder if their down fall was the willingness to extend a hand instead of a weapon.

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  2. 2. blindboy 7:38 pm 09/18/2012

    The use of the whole plumage suggests that it may have also had the utilitarian purpose of warmth. A reasonable hypothesis would be that what began as utilitarian, over time, became decorative.
    Then there is the issue that the Pleistocene covered a significant amount of time during which modern humans emerged. We know they interbred with Neanderthals so it is reasonable to assume that there was cross cultural fertilisation as well.
    The dating of the material then becomes crucial. If it post dates the arrival of modern humans, Neanderthals may have simply been adapting the cultural behaviour of modern humans by using more easily accessible species. If it predates modern humans it suggests that it arose from their own cognitive abilities.

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  3. 3. way2ec 12:17 am 09/19/2012

    Why is it so difficult for some to think that Neanderthals were this “advanced”? It is almost like they “want” the Neanderthals to be “primitive brutes”. If some of the factors for the success of our species are language, culture, abstract thinking, etc. why wouldn’t that hold true for the Neanderthals and their hundreds of thousands of years of success? If the definition of a species is a group that interbreeds and “we” interbred with “them”, wouldn’t that also suggest that language, culture, abstract thinking etc. would have been present? If they didn’t have these attributes, wouldn’t they have produced non-fertile offspring, if any at all? It seems that we are getting to the point where the differences are the dark pigment/feathered clans vs. the red pigment/feathered clans. How few years ago were we debating if the other “races” were human beings? Their offspring being “half-breeds”. Are the body differences between the “species” any greater than the variations found today in our own species, say Pygmies and the Irish? I especially like the way the author ends with Shea’s pushing the timeline back to our common ancestors, probably something they did as well, just haven’t found the evidence. Glad we now have evidence that my possible Neanderthal ancestors were that much more similar to my H. sapien ones. Personally I think the black feathers are much more elegant.

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  4. 4. blindboy 12:59 am 09/19/2012

    I don’t know that anyone is trying to categorise Neanderthals. They are just looking at the evidence. While the genetic evidence is that they could be considered as a sub-species (H.sapiens neanderthalensis), the available cultural evidence suggests significant cognitive differences. The new evidence described here doesn’t change things much.
    Now it might be that a lot of new evidence emerges over the coming years to demonstate that Neanderthals were much more culturally sophisticated than we presently believe, but until then we can only make assessments on what we have and that, as I said, suggests significant cognitive differences.

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  5. 5. juanlapuente 5:27 am 09/19/2012

    The supossedly undeveloped symbolic and cultural capabilities in Neanderthals are probably still in the mind of many because they could give some explanation to their sudden extintion.
    Now, even cave painting is being questioned. The new datations of Northern Spain cave paintings are giving surprising dates and some researchers are pointing at the possibility that Neanderthals could have painted too.
    About the symbolic use of the feathers, the fact that almost all of them come from scavenger birds strongly supports that hypothesis. Probably, Neanderthals could self-identify as scavengers and use these birds as totemic.
    Many cultures consider scavenger birds as sacred animals that help dead souls to go to heaven. May be these feathers were sported mainly by spiritual men or women, like chamans.

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  6. 6. Sauce23 4:33 pm 09/19/2012

    This report is fun, fascinating, and thought provoking. No doubt research is advancing the ball on cultural knowledge. Still, it is wise to walk cautiously into new conclusions instead of tumbling forward.

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  7. 7. Happy Hal 5:29 pm 09/19/2012

    The average Cro Magnon man, had a more nearly round skull, suited to Bors alinos, Homburgs (Headwear) Dad’s head, and mine were/are both ‘long ovals’, suggesting Neanderthal?, so only with difficulty, could we wear the hats obviously intended for ‘modern man’.
    Tell the scientific community that it’s at leas possible the Vikings were/are Neanderthal. The Watt clan originated in Norway to Orkney, to Scotland.

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  8. 8. dicklipke 5:39 pm 09/19/2012

    Homo Sapiens will always challenge the idea that they were not the originators of all ideas that led us to this so called civilization we all take for granite today. The thought that our early ancestors mimicked the Neanderthals must be frighting to many out there.
    We, Homo Sapiens, may have even got the idea of tool making by watching birds and primates using twigs to extract insects from the ground and decaying logs for their source of food.
    But why stop there, so we took it one giant leap for mankind further, “WEAPONS”.

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  9. 9. g saint 9:52 pm 09/19/2012

    homo sapiens neanderthalis was likely complex and likely able to hold two ideas at once. feather assemblages as clothing or headgear are quite practical. both provide significant insulation for warmth. this would apply not only as cape but also as cap, as there is much heat loss from the head. choosing black plumage is also practical as it better absorbs heat from sunlight. additionally, an outer layer of a feather cape or shawl would be somewhat water repellant. a practical wardrobe for misty, rainy, cool coastal living. arising mutually with it’s practical uses, feather adornment could serve to amplify the self, and like adornment, among the tribal members, could serve to enhance the bonds between them.

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  10. 10. cccampbell38 10:52 am 09/21/2012

    “…..archaeologists have often argued that Neandertals did not have the necessary technology to hunt birds…”. What nonsense! We know that a primary weapon of stone-age peoples that we have observed first hand is a stick, 2 to 3 feet long and 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter. Properly thrown it can take down a small or medium size animal at 25 to30 yards with ease. It can kill a large bird in flight. Some advanced technology that!

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  11. 11. hewakijan 12:26 am 09/26/2012

    Vulture feathers might also have been used for fletching atlatl darts.

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  12. 12. hewakijan 2:06 am 09/26/2012

    Birds can be captured many different ways.
    Ancient humans have been underestimated in their knowledge and capabilities for too long.
    They were very well versed in what they were doing.
    They were very successful for a long time, otherwise they wouldn’t have been around for such an extended period of time.

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  13. 13. sarima 9:04 am 01/8/2013

    My immediate reaction on reading this was the same as blindboy’s and g saint’s, that it is quie possible they were using the feathers for warmth. What I find particularly suggestive here is the preference for black feathers. Dark colors, especially black, absorb more sunlight, and are thus significantly warmer than lighter colors, which reflect most light. That is the preference for black could easily be simply practical.

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  14. 14. 8:23 pm 01/20/2015

    Black feathers would also aid them in retaining body heat far better than light-colored ones. dicklipke, the expression is “take for granted,” not “take for granite.” Unless, of course, the whole sentence is “It was marble, but I took it for granite.”

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  15. 15. stu44 2:49 pm 01/23/2015

    “Yet the team’s study of the bird bones from the Gibraltar sites found the cutmarks on wing bones, which have little meat—a sign that the Neandertals targeted the birds for their feathers rather than their meat.” This is speculative at best and more realistically just a fabrication. If a person is relying on every single calorie to survive, and starvation is a very real possibility, a “little meat” is meat enough, and may mean the difference between life and death.
    The article follows up with another highly speculative statement:
    “In 2011 a team of Italian researchers reported on cutmarked bird bones from Neandertal levels in Fumane Cave in northern Italy that revealed this practice.” The cutmarks could easily be due to butchery.
    The article and the entire premise that Neanderthals wore plumage as a form of fashion seems like revisionist claptrap to me in order to further the idea of the “Noble, caring Neandertal” who was wiped out by the evil Homo Sapiens. Are we supposed to feel ashamed of our ancestors’ survival? Nonsense.

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