A Neanderthal burial site in Italy reveals hundreds of bird bones mixed in with those of our hominid cousins. The bones had the feathers scraped off, as though the Neanderthals had removed them on purpose - and the only plausible reason they would do that is to wear the feathers. It's more evidence that Neanderthals were just as cultured as own ancient ancestors.

Obviously, there are some pretty big jumps from "hundreds of bird bones" to "sophisticated ancient culture", so let's examine this a bit more closely. Marco Peresani of Italy's University of Ferrara discovered 660 bird bones among the Neanderthal bones in northern Italy's Fumane Cave. A significant number of the wing bones had been cut and scraped where the feathers would have once been, which indicates they were intentionally removed.

So what were the Neanderthals using them for? There are three reasonable options: food, weaponry, or culture. Yes, the feathers could have been removed as preparations for eating the rest of the bird, but Peresani says that most of the birds found were poor food sources, and it's unlikely the Neanderthals would have subsisted on them. Such feathers could also have been removed to be part of arrows, but that technology is not thought to have been invented yet.


That leaves a cultural or ceremonial purpose. The feathers could have formed a part of local Neanderthal fashion, perhaps worn as some form of ornamental dress. The feathers would have been impractical for everyone to be constantly wearing such clothing, which in turn suggests they wore them for special reasons and perhaps only on particular occasions.

This lends credence to the belief that Neanderthals were not the savage, intellectual inferiors of our own Homo sapiens ancestors, but rather a species with their own sophisticated culture. It can hardly be considered definitive - and some critics have quite openly said that Peresani has pushed his data beyond the breaking point - but it's still some of the best evidence yet for the surprising sophistication of our Neanderthal cousins.


Via Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.