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The Neanderthals were our closest relatives, living alongside us until they died out ~30,000 years ago. Why they went extinct is one of the biggest mysteries in human evolution. They were very similar to us, yet we flourished and they all died. Over the years dozens of key “differences” have been postulated, but the number with actual scientific support decreases by the day. Just look at this table of abandoned differences:

The behaviourally modern traits identified in table 1 which were present in Tasmanian aboriginals. Red strike-through indicates absence, black strike-through indicates untested, orange italicised indicates possible presence, normal font indicates definite presence.

And even this lovely table I made is out of date. Fire, standardised tools and more also needs to be struck off

You’ll notice that “art” remains on the list. That’s something of a sticky issue because Neanderthal art isn’t exactly unknown1. However, human art from the period tends to be much more complex and we have a lot more of it. There’s also the issue that there isn’t enough time difference between humans and Neanderthal art; with the latter appearing to post-date Neanderthals’2 first encounters with us in the Middle East3. There’s always a slim chance they learned it from us.

As such, most people think there was some key artistic differences between us (which just raises the question, is that even significant?).

One of the talons, with the marks indicative of necklacing highlighted

One of the talons, with the marks indicative of necklacing highlighted

However, a new find from Croatia may well put some of this disagreement to rest (in turn, creating further debate over what made humans special after all). Eagle talons have been discovered with the tell-tale sign of being fashioned into a necklace (or bracelet). Crucially, they come from a site only associated with Neanderthals and ~130,000 years old. That makes them much older than humans and Neanderthals first meeting; and even older than the first human necklaces4!

Another (perhaps more) significant aspect of this discovery is the quantity of the talons; and the fact that they were the only necklacified bones present at the site. Based on this the discovers claim that these necklaces were symbolic4; carrying a special significance with the Neanderthals. Maybe they represented membership in the tribe, or who was a really good eagle hunter.

If there is some special, evolutionary significance to art then it seems to be present in these Neanderthals.

So, humans may have made more art; maybe even better art. But the Neanderthals were doing it first. Is that significant? Is this all barking up the wrong tree? Your guess is as good as mine at this point.


  1. Rodríguez-Vidal, J., d’Errico, F., Pacheco, F. G., Blasco, R., Rosell, J., Jennings, R. P., … & Finlayson, C. (2014). A rock engraving made by Neanderthals in Gibraltar. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,111(37), 13301-13306.
  2. Zilhão, J., Angelucci, D. E., Badal-García, E., d’Errico, F., Daniel, F., Dayet, L., … & Zapata, J. (2010). Symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by Iberian Neandertals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,107(3), 1023-1028.
  3. Schwarcz, H. P., Grün, R., Vandermeersch, B., Bar-Yosef, O., Valladas, H., & Tchernov, E. (1988). ESR dates for the hominid burial site of Qafzeh in Israel.Journal of Human Evolution, 17(8), 733-737.
  4. Radovčić D, Sršen AO, Radovčić J, Frayer DW (2015) Evidence for Neandertal Jewelry: Modified White-Tailed Eagle Claws at Krapina. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0119802. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0119802

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Paul Braterman · 17th March 2015 at 10:51 pm

Could the “extinction” of the n=Neanderthals be a statistical artefact, if the Neanderthals, reduced in numbers by the rigours of the ice age environment, interbred with more numerous “modern” humans emerging from Africa? If so, no explanation in our favour is required.

    Adam Benton · 17th March 2015 at 10:55 pm

    That is a possibility; but it doesn’t seem a likely one given there appear to have been relatively few interbreeding events, based on modern genetics

Brett Martin · 29th March 2015 at 10:47 pm

The neanderthals and other hominids made tasty snacks for us Humans, those ape like half breed thugs didn’t stand a chance against our superior intellect, cooperation and communication skills, developed though our unique figurative art skills.

fossilipps · 12th June 2015 at 10:16 pm

Given the very short shrift us moderns have given Neanderthals, I wonder if anyone has ever considered if Neanderthals exposed us to the idea of self-adornment- necklaces, body paint- and the creation of artsy stuff like incised marks on bone and stone?

I know there has been very early evidence of us stringing shells for whatever use in southern Africa where there were never any Neanderthals around, and other simple examples as well. On the other hand, we, AMH, had been putzing around for a good 60,000 years of so before we suddenly popped up making art in a big way- like cave painting and portable art- and in areas where Neanderthals also lived. Perhaps it was they provided the creative spark to us, and we were finally able to take it and run with it.

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