Eagles hold a special place in many human cultures, including almost everyone who set foot in North America. It turns out this obsession isn’t a new development, as archaeologists have discovered that Neanderthals were the first to start hunting eagles as early as 130,000 years ago.
Like later cultures, they also seem to have been obsessed. A review by Finlayson and colleagues found they were their favourite feathery prey. Specifically, it seems they were more focused on obtaining their feathers (and claws), rather than hunting them for meat1.
Could this mean they weren’t hunting them purely for survival? After all, countless societies have viewed the feathers of eagles as symbols of power and status1. Perhaps it the same for the Neanderthals, 130,000 years ago.
How often did they hunt eagles?
Scientists only recently discovered that Neanderthals hunted any birds, let alone eagles. Meanwhile, there was evidence of Homo sapiens hunting birds in Europe for most of their prehistory there2.
This was thought to represent a difference in hunting capability between the two species (birds are hard to catch after all). Perhaps this extra hunting skill could explain why Homo sapiens ultimately outcompeted Neanderthals. Alas, this theory was shot down in the early 2000s when people started recognising Neanderthals were also in on the bird action2.
Since then, we’ve found birds at more than 80 Neanderthals sites, with definitive evidence of them being hunted at 16 of them. For context, there’s definitive evidence for bird hunting at 11 early European Homo sapiens sites. Losers1.
All of this data gathered by Finlayson et al. sounds like just a bunch of bird stats. But it documents a key trend: for the most part, the frequency of a bird species being hunted is correlated with how often it appears at Neanderthal sites. In other words, they were hunting what was locally available1.
With one exception: eagles.
Despite being one of the rarer birds around, they were the most frequently hunted1.
Why did they hunt eagles?
Why were Neanderthals going after eagles so much? On the surface, you might think it might be because they’re big birds so would have a lot of meat. And Neanderthals sure did love their meat. However, golden eagles are actually only the 5th biggest bird available to them (vultures being the biggest)1.
Plus, the Neanderthals seem to have been most interested in the wings/feathers and talons; two parts famously un-meaty. On the other hand, these are eagle bits with symbolic value in many cultures1. And, despite their brutish reputation, Neanderthals were well into symbolism. Could that have been their motivation?
Whatever the reason was, it’s definitely a Neanderthal practice. Golden eagles are only found at northern latitudes, so the skills to catch them must have been developed by a species living at northern latitudes, i.e. Neanderthals.
What’s more, the Homo sapiens arriving in Europe continued hunting golden eagles. Could this be a sign of our species learning from/copying those we replaced?
- Finlayson, S., Finlayson, G., Guzman, F.G. and Finlayson, C., 2019. Neanderthals and the cult of the Sun Bird. Quaternary Science Reviews.
- Blasco, R. and Peris, J.F., 2009. Middle Pleistocene bird consumption at level XI of Bolomor cave (Valencia, Spain). Journal of archaeological science, 36(10), pp.2213-2223.