Birds of a feather: Neanderthal exploitation of raptors and corvids

PLoS One. 2012;7(9):e45927. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0045927. Epub 2012 Sep 17.


The hypothesis that Neanderthals exploited birds for the use of their feathers or claws as personal ornaments in symbolic behaviour is revolutionary as it assigns unprecedented cognitive abilities to these hominins. This inference, however, is based on modest faunal samples and thus may not represent a regular or systematic behaviour. Here we address this issue by looking for evidence of such behaviour across a large temporal and geographical framework. Our analyses try to answer four main questions: 1) does a Neanderthal to raptor-corvid connection exist at a large scale, thus avoiding associations that might be regarded as local in space or time?; 2) did Middle (associated with Neanderthals) and Upper Palaeolithic (associated with modern humans) sites contain a greater range of these species than Late Pleistocene paleontological sites?; 3) is there a taphonomic association between Neanderthals and corvids-raptors at Middle Palaeolithic sites on Gibraltar, specifically Gorham's, Vanguard and Ibex Caves? and; 4) was the extraction of wing feathers a local phenomenon exclusive to the Neanderthals at these sites or was it a geographically wider phenomenon?. We compiled a database of 1699 Pleistocene Palearctic sites based on fossil bird sites. We also compiled a taphonomical database from the Middle Palaeolithic assemblages of Gibraltar. We establish a clear, previously unknown and widespread, association between Neanderthals, raptors and corvids. We show that the association involved the direct intervention of Neanderthals on the bones of these birds, which we interpret as evidence of extraction of large flight feathers. The large number of bones, the variety of species processed and the different temporal periods when the behaviour is observed, indicate that this was a systematic, geographically and temporally broad, activity that the Neanderthals undertook. Our results, providing clear evidence that Neanderthal cognitive capacities were comparable to those of Modern Humans, constitute a major advance in the study of human evolution.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal*
  • Cognition
  • Feathers / anatomy & histology
  • Fossils*
  • Neanderthals / psychology*
  • Paleontology
  • Passeriformes / anatomy & histology*
  • Raptors / anatomy & histology*

Grants and funding

The excavations and scientific research associated with Gorham's Cave have been funded by the Government of Gibraltar and, additionally between 2002–04, by the European Community - Program Interreg IIIB: 2002-02-4, 1-U-048 -. R. Blasco and J. Rosell are part of the following projects: 2009 SGR 188 of Generalitat de Catalunya and CGL2009-12703-C03-02 of the Spanish Goverment. A. Sánchez Marco belongs to the CGL2011-28681 project of the Spanish Government. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.