London: Neanderthals harvested feathers from birds in order to use them as personal ornaments, a new study has suggested.
The result provides yet more evidence that the ancient humans’ thinking ability was similar to our own, said the researchers who carried out the study.
The analysis even suggested they had a preference for dark feathers, which they selected from birds of prey and corvids - such as ravens and rooks.
Clive Finlayson and Kimberly Brown from the Gibraltar Museum, along with colleagues from Spain, Canada and Belgium, examined a database of 1,699 ancient sites across Eurasia, comparing data on birds at locations used by humans with those that were not.
They found a clear association between raptor and corvid remains and sites that had been occupied by humans.
They then looked more closely at bird bones found at Neanderthal sites in Gibraltar, including Gorham’s and Vanguard cave, near the base of the rock.
“The Neanderthals had cut through and marked the bones. But what were they cutting? We realised a lot of it was wing bones, particularly those holding large primary feathers,” Prof Finlayson told BBC News.
Co-author Jordi Rosell, from Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain, added: “We saw the cut-marks on bird bones at one cave, and then started seeing them in others. I think it’s a common aspect to the caves in this rock.”
Juan Jose Negro, director of the Donana Biological Station in Seville, Spain, who is another co-author, said: “The wings make up less than 20 percent of the weight of the body of those birds,” adding, “there is no meat in the wings - they were not consuming these animals.
The only explanation left is the use of those long feathers, he noted
Not only this, but the ancient humans appeared to have a preference for birds with dark or black plumage. Species represented at the sites include ravens, crows, rooks, magpies, jackdaws, various types of eagle and vulture, red and black kites, kestrels and falcons.
Speaking at this year’s Calpe conference in Gibraltar, Prof Finlayson explained: “What all this suggests to us is that Neanderthals had the cognitive abilities to think in symbolic terms. The feathers were almost certainly being used for ornamental purposes, and this is a quite unbelievable thing to find.”
Dr Negro cautioned that there was no way to tell how the feathers were put to use. But he observed: “Current uses of feathers typically involve the same species. If you think of the Plains Indians in North America, they put those feathers in headdresses and they are signalling. They are signalling power and status. Perhaps the Neanderthals were using feathers in the same way.”
Details of the research appear in Plos One journal.