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Stewart Finlayson

Neanderthals may have trapped golden eagles 130,000 years ago

The golden eagle has been hunted and revered by human cultures for thousands of years. Yet this may not have been a uniquely human devotion—Neanderthals, too, may have targeted these impressive birds of prey some 130,000 years ago, according to new research. What’s more, modern humans may have learned their eagle-catching techniques from their hominin cousins.

With its luminous auburn feathers and massive 2.2-meter wingspan, the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is associated with solar deities in religions around the world, from Native American traditional belief systems to Roman and Greek mythologies.

A family team of anthropologists wanted to find out whether Neanderthals were part of that heritage. Eagle bones and talons have been found across dozens of sites in central and western Europe occupied by both Neanderthals and modern humans. So the researchers combed through the literature on 154 Neanderthal-associated sites to see whether golden eagle remains stood out in any way.

Although rock dove and raven remains were the most numerous birds, the remains of golden eagles were also present at 26 sites. Cut marks along the wing bones—where golden eagles have little meat—suggest Neanderthals carefully extracted the feathers, the researchers report in Quaternary Science Reviews. Additional cuts to the birds’ leg and foot bones suggest their claws and talons were also delicately separated from the rest of their bodies.

No golden eagle Neanderthal jewelry has been discovered, but anthropologists in 2015 reported finding talons from another eagle—the white-tailed eagle—adorning a Neanderthal necklace. Because Neanderthals were apparently catching and fashioning jewelry from large raptors in Eurasia thousands of years before modern humans migrated up into the continent from Africa, the authors suggest our ancient ancestors may have picked up the practice from watching their Neanderthal neighbors.