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Neanderthals Had Taste In Jewelry Too


Yet another discovery has been brought into the growing pile of evidence that suggests Neanderthals were not quite the savage, hairy monsters we often portray them as being. Recently the fossil evidence has shown that they were attentive parents, that they had an appreciation of art – creating cave paintings of their own, and that they held elaborate burials for their dead, but a new study elaborates a bit further on their personal tastes. According to a paper published today in PLOS ONE, the Neanderthal hominids may have developed their own jewelry – necklaces fashioned from eagle talons, that until recently were attributed to modern humans.

They disappeared some 39,000 years ago, shortly after modern humans began to enter Europe – for reasons that are not quite known. For some time before their extinction, the species are believed to have interbred, and perhaps they did not so much die out as become assimilated with homo sapiens. Our DNA is 99.7% identical to theirs, and modern humans who aren’t of African descent share about 2.5% of DNA with Neanderthals. Although this lineage has recently fallen into dispute, both Neanderthals and modern humans did originate in Africa, and may have shared a common ancestor. Not only did they craft jewelry, but their hunting skills may have rivaled those of modern humans as well. In order to craft the talon necklaces which seem like a necessary ingredient in most movies featuring prehistoric cavemen – they may have also been able to fashion traps to catch more than one eagle – at that time the sky’s apex predator.

The evidence came not from a recent archaeological dig, but rather through examining some old articles from a museum collection. (as so much evidence does) from the bowels of a museum collection. At the beginning of the 20th century, Croatian paleontologist Dragutin Gorjanović-Kramberger lead an excavation of a site near the Croatian village of Krapina, which was filled with Ice Age human and animal remains. While you may have never seen Gorjanović-Kramberger’s name in print before, during his career, he used newly invented X-ray machines to look at inner bone structures from his finds and he even developed a way to determine the ages of the skeletons he found, through analyzing their fluorine content, nearly half a century before carbon dating came into existence. The site he uncovered held almost a thousand human bones, the bones of several thousand animals, several thousand animal bones, alongside at least a thousand tools, all of which dated between 120,000 to 130,000 years ago. As a result, the town is now home to a large museum dedicated specifically to Neanderthal culture and evolution.

Like most modern paleontologists, Gorjanovic-Kramberger kept a detailed record of where each skeleton was found, but when it came to discovering the necklaces, he overlooked something rather obvious.

“He found these eagle talons and sent them to a bird specialist in Budapest,” said David Frayer of the University of Kansas, one of the new study’s researchers. “But ironically, even though he was the first person to identify cut marks on human bones, he missed these really obvious signs of cut marks and manipulation on the eagle talons.”

The bird specialist in Budapest also paid little attention to the talons as did the museum curators who kept the specimens stored in their collection for well over a century.

It was not until late 2013, when one of Frayer’s colleagues became curator of the Croatian Natural History Museum and gave the talons a second look. She gave him a call after she suspected that the markings had been made by the Neanderthals they were buried with.

“When I saw them, my jaw dropped,” he said. “The talons were so complete and so beautiful, and the cut marks were so obvious.”

The single most important detail is the age of the necklaces. They are 120,000 or 130,000 years old, when Croatia was occupied solely by the Neanderthals.

Researchers have in the past suspected that Neanderthals did craft the necklaces, but may have learned their trade from what were much more sophisticated homo sapiens. The only prototypes they had for this claim, were more modern necklaces found in France, dating to about 40,000 years ago.

“People often argue that Neanderthals were mimicking modern humans instead of coming up with ornamental things on their own,” Frayer said. “In this case, there’s no doubt: There were only Neanderthals there, and only Neanderthal tools.”

The patterns of wear of the talons have led Frayer and his colleagues to believe that the claws had been strung together and were worn as necklaces. Exposure to sweat as well as other bodily fluids led to a distinct type of polishing which is often found on shell bead necklaces made in the same way.

Eagles would be rare in the mountainous terrain where the Neanderthals lived, and were also highly aggressive, two aspects indicating that these Neanderthals were highly skilled when it came to hunting.

“There are talons from three or four different eagles here, and that represents a lot of planning and skill,” he said. “They’re big birds, and they’re vicious when caught.”

These were not run-of-the-mill prey – they were targets that some of the braver Neanderthals deliberately hunted. It took about three or four birds to make one necklace. Even the decision to use eagle talons as an ornament — if it really was intended for that — may also suggest that the Neanderthals had capacity for abstract thinking.

“When you catch the most powerful aerial predator in your environment and wear it around your neck, that suggests some kind of attempt to get its power,” he said.

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.
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    It’s a well known fact that our solar system, and particularly our planet, has endured a number of disasters from its very beginning as a chunk of rock some 4.6 billion years ago. An early collision with Mars, aptly named for the god of war, may be among the events responsible for first bringing life to Earth. Another collision is responsible for the chunk of earth that broke off to form our moon. Relentless meteors have pummeled its surface ever since, some quite harmless, while others brought about massive extinction events. Earth in its very beginning was hardly a hospitable place to be.

    Among the many objects to hit the Earth within its first billion years, many of the meteors were rich in iron. These collisions could have led to it becoming so prevalent across the planet as well as one of the essential minerals needed to support many different forms of life. Iron in these early days would have infiltrated the atmosphere onto Earth’s crust, but also would have melted its mantle at high rates as well. These same meteorites may have also left behind metals such as gold or platinum which easily bond with iron. What the model has not convincingly explained yet, is how the iron is so prevalent that it makes up so much of the mantle of our planet.

    Researcher Richard Kraus of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory of California, wanted to take the research a step further, in order to find the best way that would measure exactly how iron would behave under such harsh conditions as our planet’s first days, and what would sort of extreme heat would be necessary for iron to vaporize completely.

    “We’re never really going to be able to get a situation where we can simulate the actual planetary impact, with objects a thousand kilometres across. It would just be too destructive,” says Kraus. “We’re taking a step back and saying, let’s make a fundamental measure of the entropy of iron.”

    In order to investigate further, the team employed the Z machine from the Sandia National Laboratory of Albuquerque, New Mexico, a machine used to accelerate metals to the most extreme speeds with the help of high magnetic fields.

    For their project, they shot small iron samples with aluminium plates, each less than a centimeter square and about 1.2 millimeters thick. These plates were accelerated between 30,000 to 40,000 miles per hour. The result was a powerful collision in which shock waves rattled through the iron, causing the pieces to compress and then heat up before they eventually vaporized. The researchers were then able to determine how the properties they found in this lab-made iron rain worked by having them drop upon a window composed of quartz, solid enough to withstand the dropping particles.

    Through their experimentation, they soon discovered that it required considerably less pressure for them to vaporize the iron than researchers had once thought – in fact, a full 40 per cent below their original estimation. This realization is painting an entirely new vision of what the early Earth must have looked like. The meteors entering our orbit would typically vaporize upon their impact due to the extreme temperatures and pressure as they accelerated at speeds perhaps faster than those tested under lab conditions. These vanquished meteors would then send a boiling hot plume composed primarily of iron and rock dust into the air. This mixture would afterwards rain down, allowing it to easily and thoroughly blend into the Earth’s mantle.

    The way in which iron behaves under pressure also suffices to explain why our moon has significantly less metal across its surface compared to Earth. Many suspect that since it broke off from the Earth, the two bodies should have a similar if not identical composition. Any iron that vaporized from meteor collisions on the moon would instead be able to escape back in space, considering that the moon has relatively low levels of gravity.

    The beginning of our planet, may have been little more than chemistry – reactions of not only celestial bodies that smashed into each other, but of what they left behind.

    “The reason we’re able to mine gold and make jewellery out of it, and mine palladium and make catalytic converters, is because the silicates have much higher abundances of these elements than one might expect,” said Richard Walker from the University of Maryland. “This is a pretty good way of explaining how they got here and why they’re not located 2900 kilometres below your feet in the core.”

    Kraus’ work was published this week in the journal Nature Geoscience.

    James Sullivan
    James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.