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Matteo Romandini, University of Ferrara
Matteo Romandini, University of Ferrara

Scientists Recreate How Neanderthals May Have Butchered Birds for Jewelry

Matteo Romandini, University of Ferrara
Matteo Romandini, University of Ferrara

Once thought of as thick-browed brutes, Neanderthals have been getting more credit for their intellect lately. Recent evidence suggests that our extinct cousins, Homo neanderthalensis, buried their dead, used tools, and perhaps could speak. Neanderthals may have also accessorized with raptor feathers and talons—and, according to new research, they went through great pains to do so. 

To get inside the Neanderthal mind, Matteo Romandini, an anthropologist at the University of Ferrara in Italy, has been butchering birds for himself. Romandini and his team have found that it takes considerable effort to fashion an eagle claw for a necklace or collect feathers from a griffon wing, as Neanderthals may have in the past. They recently published the results of their experimental archaeology in Quaternary International

Neanderthals, the closest extinct relatives of humans (their DNA can be found in many of us today), lived in Europe and western Asia from about 400,000 years ago until they mysteriously vanished about 40,000 years ago. At some prehistoric campsites, like the Krapina rock shelter in Croatia and Fumane Cave in northern Italy, researchers have found the remains of raptors alongside Neanderthals’ fossil record of skeletons and stone tools. Deliberate cut marks on these bird bones and claws suggest that Neanderthals exploited birds—not just to get bird meat for food, but to collect bird feathers and claws for personal adornment.

For his latest round of experiments, Romandini contacted raptor rehab centers in Europe to find carcasses of raptors that had died due to natural or accidental causes. He was able to use three different species in the study: the lammergeier, or bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), the Eurasian griffon (Gyps fulvus), and the Eurasian eagle-owl (Bubo bubo). 

Romandini and his team used flint flakes and tools to dismember the carcasses and disconnect the raptors’ flight feathers. In every case, they wrote, detaching the carpometacarpus (the tip of the wing bone where the feathers are attached) was a tricky operation, requiring manual twisting and cutting with their stone tools. You can see steps of the process below.

The researchers found that the scraping marks they left on the wing bones in their experiments were indeed comparable to the little notches left on the prehistoric bones found at Fumane Cave and from other Neanderthal sites. However, two of the prehistoric wing bone fragments found at Fumane Cave had far more cut marks than would be expected just to remove the feathers.

Below, a fragment of an ulna from a vulture found in the cave. 

The researchers speculate that these small bones were being fashioned into tools, perhaps similar to the awl made out of bird bone found at a Homo sapiens site in South Africa.

In a previous study in PLOS One, Romandini and his colleagues conducted similar experiments to remove the claws of the same raptor species. The researchers found that the act of separating tendons from the talons left tiny incisions on the base of the bony claws exactly comparable to the marks on the prehistoric claws discovered at other Neanderthal camps like Rio Secco in Italy and Mandrin Cave in France.

“I was surprised by the difficulty to obtain the claws of these large raptors,” Romandini tells mental_floss. “The flint makes it very hard to break the keratin, which is very thick around the claws. The expenditure of time and energy certainly implies special attention to derive these particular objects.”

And that’s exactly why a taste for jewelry is interesting to anthropologists: It implies Neanderthals had impressive cognitive abilities. Accessorizing one’s body suggests a capacity for abstract thinking and symbolic thought—not to mention planning and effort.

All images courtesy of Matteo Romandini via University of Ferrara

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The Real Bay of Pigs: Big Major Cay in the Bahamas
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iStock

When most people visit the Bahamas, they’re thinking about a vacation filled with sun, sand, and swimming—not swine. But you can get all four of those things if you visit Big Major Cay.

Big Major Cay, also now known as “Pig Island” for obvious reasons, is part of the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Exuma includes private islands owned by Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and David Copperfield. Despite all of the local star power, the real attraction seems to be the family of feral pigs that has established Big Major Cay as their own. It’s hard to say how many are there—some reports say it’s a family of eight, while others say the numbers are up to 40. However big the band of roaming pigs is, none of them are shy: Their chief means of survival seems to be to swim right up to boats and beg for food, which the charmed tourists are happy to provide (although there are guidelines about the best way of feeding the pigs).

No one knows exactly how the pigs got there, but there are plenty of theories. Among them: 1) A nearby resort purposely released them more than a decade ago, hoping to attract tourists. 2) Sailors dropped them off on the island, intending to dine on pork once they were able to dock for a longer of period of time. For one reason or another, the sailors never returned. 3) They’re descendants of domesticated pigs from a nearby island. When residents complained about the original domesticated pigs, their owners solved the problem by dropping them off at Big Major Cay, which was uninhabited. 4) The pigs survived a shipwreck. The ship’s passengers did not.

The purposeful tourist trap theory is probably the least likely—VICE reports that the James Bond movie Thunderball was shot on a neighboring island in the 1960s, and the swimming swine were there then.

Though multiple articles reference how “adorable” the pigs are, don’t be fooled. One captain warns, “They’ll eat anything and everything—including fingers.”

Here they are in action in a video from National Geographic:

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Christine Colby
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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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