The 'Last Necklace Made by the Neanderthals' Discovered in Spanish Cave

What could be the last necklace made by Neanderthals has been discovered in a cave in Spain, with researchers unearthing eagle talons that had been used as a personal ornament some 39,000 years ago.

The talons were found in the Foradada cave in the Iberian Peninsula. This is an archaeological site that was thought to have been occupied by Neanderthals of the Châtelperronian culture in the Middle Paleolithic—a period that very broadly starts about 200,000 years ago and ends between 40,000 and 35,000 years ago, around the time the Neanderthals went extinct.

Evidence of Neanderthals making jewelry from eagle talons is not a new discovery. Talons have previously been found at several different cave sites associated with ancient relatives. However, these tend to be within a fairly concentrated area of southern Europe, including Croatia, Italy and France. Most of these date to between about 130,000 years and 50,000 years.

In these cases, archaeologists analyzed the cut marks that had been made when processing the talons to show they had been purposefully removed from the eagle for ornamental use. This, researchers have suggested, shows Neanderthals were capable of "symbolic behavior."

Previously, it was thought symbolic behavior was what set us apart from Neanderthals, but this picture is changing. There is now evidence to suggest they buried their dead and occasionally marked the graves. A 2016 study even suggested a Neanderthal that lived in Croatia 130,000 years collected a rock purely for its aesthetics.

The latest discovery at Foradada adds more evidence to the idea Neanderthals were capable of symbolic behavior, showing that using eagle talons for ornamental purposes was not confined to one region of southern Europe. The findings are published in Science Advances.

vulture talon
Researchers performed butchering experiments on vulture talons to work out how the cut marks had been made. Findings show the Neanderthals had removed the talons for ornamental purposes, rather than consumption. Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo

Lead author Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo, from the Institute of Evolution in Africa (IDEA), told Newsweek the discovery broadens the spatial range of the behavior, potentially showing it is a phenomenon among Neanderthals, rather than being confined to a specific region.

At 39,000 years, it is also the most recent example of the behavior, and potentially represents "the last necklace made by the Neanderthals," Rodríguez-Hidalgo said in a statement.

The talon the team found came from the left leg of a large eagle. Analysis of its markings suggest the bird is unlikely to have been butchered for consumption. Instead, the cut marks indicate they were made into pendants. The authors also point out that the talons provide little nutritional value, giving further weight to the idea of symbolic use.

eagle talon
The eagle talon found in the cave in Spain. Researchers now hope to examine other talons found at Neanderthal sites. Antonio Rodríguez-Hidalgo

Rodríguez-Hidalgo told Newsweek the eagle talons may represent a "nonverbal message" and that it may have spread like other cultural and technological transmissions—by being passed down from generation to generation, potentially with some evolutionary advantage. It may have started, he said, just as an ornament for Neanderthals to "doll themselves up."

He said there are a number of limitations to their work—some researchers believe the Foradada cave was occupied by modern humans rather than Neanderthals, for example. He added the team now hopes to examine other cases of eagle talons being used by Neanderthals.

Discussing the possible significance of eagles, he said: "For most human societies, eagles represent positive concepts—courage, power, spirits—but it is impossible to know which was the symbolic meaning of the talons because we don't have a rosette stone that allows us to translate their meaning."