GIBRALTAR CITY, Gibraltar (UPI) — Neanderthals used feathers from birds as personal ornaments, yet more evidence their cognitive abilities were similar to our own, a European study suggests.
Researchers say the findings even suggest the extinct species had a preference for dark feathers, which they selected from birds of prey and species such as ravens.
Throughout history, many tribal peoples have used feathers as ornamentation, a practice that, in fact, could go back even further to a common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals, they said.
Researchers from the Gibraltar Museum, 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.
They also looked at bird bones found at Neanderthal sites in Gibraltar.
“The Neanderthals had cut through and marked the bones,” Gibraltar researcher Clive Finlayson told BBC News.
“But what were they cutting? We realized a lot of it was wing bones, particularly those holding large primary feathers.”
The wings make up less than 20 percent of the weight of the body of those birds, researchers said, noting “there is no meat in the wings — they were not consuming these animals.
“The only explanation left is the use of those long feathers,” Juan Jose Negro, director of the Donana Biological Station in Seville, Spain, said.
For much of the last century, Neanderthals were considered an inferior species whose extinction about 30,000 years ago was the inescapable result of competing against Homo sapiens, on the assumption they were a more intelligent, creative and resourceful human species.
The new findings may refute this, researchers said.
“The last bastion of defense in favor of [Homo sapiens'] superiority was cognition,” Finlayson said.
“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.”