CLOSE
Original image
Matteo Romandini, University of Ferrara

Scientists Recreate How Neanderthals May Have Butchered Birds for Jewelry

Original image
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

Original image
FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images
arrow
Animals
Fisherman Catches Rare Blue Lobster, Donates It to Science
Original image
FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images

Live lobsters caught off the New England coast are typically brown, olive-green, or gray—which is why one New Hampshire fisherman was stunned when he snagged a blue one in mid-July.

As The Independent reports, Greg Ward, from Rye, New Hampshire, discovered the unusual lobster while examining his catch near the New Hampshire-Maine border. Ward initially thought the pale crustacean was an albino lobster, which some experts estimate to be a one-in-100-million discovery. However, a closer inspection revealed that the lobster's hard shell was blue and cream.

"This one was not all the way white and not all the way blue," Ward told The Portsmouth Herald. "I've never seen anything like it."

While not as rare as an albino lobster, blue lobsters are still a famously elusive catch: It's said that the odds of their occurrence are an estimated one in two million, although nobody knows the exact numbers.

Instead of eating the blue lobster, Ward decided to donate it to the Seacoast Science Center in Rye. There, it will be studied and displayed in a lobster tank with other unusually colored critters, including a second blue lobster, a bright orange lobster, and a calico-spotted lobster.

[h/t The Telegraph]

Original image
Courtesy Murdoch University
arrow
Animals
Australian Scientists Discover First New Species of Sunfish in 125 Years
Original image
Courtesy Murdoch University

Scientists have pinpointed a whole new species of the largest bony fish in the world, the massive sunfish, as we learned from Smithsonian magazine. It's the first new species of sunfish proposed in more than 125 years.

As the researchers report in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the genetic differences between the newly named hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) and its other sunfish brethren was confirmed by data on 27 different samples of the species collected over the course of three years. Since sunfish are so massive—the biggest can weigh as much as 5000 pounds—they pose a challenge to preserve and store, even for museums with large research collections. Lead author Marianne Nyegaard of Murdoch University in Australia traveled thousands of miles to find and collected genetic data on sunfish stranded on beaches. At one point, she was asked if she would be bringing her own crane to collect one.

Nyegaard also went back through scientific literature dating back to the 1500s, sorting through descriptions of sea monsters and mermen to see if any of the documentation sounded like observations of the hoodwinker. "We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time," she said in a press statement. "Overall, we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the 'hoodwinker.'"

Japanese researchers first detected genetic differences between previously known sunfish and a new, unknown species 10 years ago, and this confirms the existence of a whole different type from species like the Mola mola or Mola ramsayi.

Mola tecta looks a little different from other sunfish, with a more slender body. As it grows, it doesn't develop the protruding snout or bumps that other sunfish exhibit. Similarly to the others, though, it can reach a length of 8 feet or more. 

Based on the stomach contents of some of the specimens studied, the hoodwinker likely feeds on salps, a jellyfish-like creature that it probably chomps on (yes, sunfish have teeth) during deep dives. The species has been found near New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and southern Chile.

[h/t Smithsonian]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios