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Matteo Romandini, University of Ferrara

Scientists Recreate How Neanderthals May Have Butchered Birds for Jewelry

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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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Big Questions
Why Do We Dive With Sharks But Not Crocodiles?
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Why do we dive with sharks but not crocodiles?

Eli Rosenberg:

The issue is the assumption that sharks' instincts are stronger and more basic.

There are a couple of reasons swimming with sharks is safer:

1. Most sharks do not like the way people taste. They expect their prey to taste a certain way, like fish/seal, and we do not taste like that. Sharks also do not like the sensation of eating people. Bigger sharks like great whites enjoy prey with a high fat-bone ratio like seals. Smaller sharks enjoy eating fish, which they can gobble in one bite. So, while they might bite us, they pretty quickly decide “That’s not for me” and swim away. There is only one shark that doesn’t really care about humans tasting icky: that shark is our good friend the tiger shark. He is one of the most dangerous species because of his nondiscriminatory taste (he’s called the garbage can of the sea)!

2. Sharks are not animals that enjoy a fight. Our big friend the great white enjoys ambushing seals. This sneak attack is why it sometimes mistakes people for seals or sea turtles. Sharks do not need to fight for food. The vast majority of sharks species are not territorial (some are, like the blacktip and bull). The ones that are territorial tend to be the more aggressive species that are more dangerous to dive with.

3. Sharks attacked about 81 people in 2016, according to the University of Florida. Only four were fatal. Most were surfers.

4. Meanwhile, this is the saltwater crocodile. The saltwater crocodile is not a big, fishy friend, like the shark. He is an opportunistic, aggressive, giant beast.


5. Crocodiles attack hundreds to thousands of people every single year. Depending on the species, one-third to one-half are fatal. You have a better chance of survival if you played Russian roulette.

6. The Death Roll. When a crocodile wants to kill something big, the crocodile grabs it and rolls. This drowns and disorients the victim (you). Here is a PG video of the death roll. (There is also a video on YouTube in which a man stuck his arm into an alligator’s mouth and he death rolled. You don’t want to see what happened.)

7. Remember how the shark doesn’t want to eat you or fight you? This primordial beast will eat you and enjoy it. There is a crocodile dubbed Gustave, who has allegedly killed around 300 people. (I personally believe 300 is a hyped number and the true number might be around 100, but yikes, that’s a lot). Gustave has reportedly killed people for funsies. He’s killed them and gone back to his business. So maybe they won’t even eat you.


8. Sharks are mostly predictable. Crocodiles are completely unpredictable.

9. Are you in the water or by the edge of the water? You are fair game to a crocodile.

10. Crocodiles have been known to hang out together. The friend group that murders together eats together. Basks of crocodiles have even murdered hippopotamuses, the murder river horse. Do you think you don't look like an appetizer?

11. Wow, look at this. This blacktip swims among the beautiful coral, surrounded by crystal clear waters and staggering biodiversity. I want to swim there!

Oh wow, such mud. I can’t say I feel the urge to take a dip. (Thanks to all who pointed this out!)

12. This is not swimming with the crocodiles. More like a 3D aquarium.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Animals
10 Filling Facts About Turkeys
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Don’t be fooled by their reputation for being thoughtless. These roly-poly birds have a few tricks up their wings.

1. THE BIRDS WERE NAMED AFTER THE COUNTRY.

The turkey is an American bird, so why does it share its name with a country on the other side of the world? Laziness, mostly. Turkish traders had been importing African guinea fowl to Europe for some time when North American explorers started shipping M. gallopavo back to the Old World. The American birds looked kind of like the African “turkey-cocks,” and so Europeans called them “turkeys.” Eventually, the word “turkey” came to describe M. gallopavo exclusively.

2. THEY NEARLY WENT EXTINCT.

By the early 20th century, the combination of overzealous hunting and habitat destruction had dwindled the turkey populations down to 30,000. With the help of conservationists, the turkey made a comeback. The birds are now so numerous that they’ve become a nuisance in some parts of the country.

3. THEY’VE GOT TWO STOMACHS.

Like all birds, turkeys don’t have teeth, so they’ve got to enlist some extra help to break down their food. Each swallowed mouthful goes first into a chamber called a proventriculus, which uses stomach acid to start softening the food. From there, food travels to the gizzard, where specialized muscles smash it into smaller pieces.

4. FEMALE TURKEYS DON’T GOBBLE.

Turkeys of both sexes purr, whistle, cackle, and yelp, but only the males gobble. A gobble is the male turkey’s version of a lion’s roar, announcing his presence to females and warning his rivals to stay away. To maximize the range of their calls, male turkeys often gobble from the treetops.

5. THEY SLEEP IN TREES.

Due to their deliciousness, turkeys have a lot of natural predators. As the sun goes down, the turkeys go up—into the trees. They start by flying onto a low branch, then clumsily hop their way upward, branch by branch, until they reach a safe height.

6. BOTH MALE AND FEMALE TURKEYS HAVE WATTLES.

The wattle is the red dangly bit under the turkey’s chin. The red thing on top of the beak is called a snood. Both sexes have those, too, but they’re more functional in male turkeys. Studies have shown that female turkeys prefer mates with longer snoods, which may indicate health and good genes.

7. THEY HAVE REALLY GOOD VISION.

Turkey eyes are really, really sharp. On top of that, they’ve got terrific peripheral vision. We humans can only see about 180 degrees, but given the placement of their eyes on the sides of their heads, turkeys can see 270 degrees. They’ve also got way better color vision than we do and can see ultraviolet light.

8. THEY’RE FAST ON THE GROUND, TOO.

You wouldn’t guess it by looking at them, but turkeys can really book it when they need to. We already know they’re fast in the air; on land, a running turkey can reach a speed of up to 25 mph—as fast as a charging elephant.

9. THEY’RE SMART … BUT NOT THAT SMART.

Turkeys can recognize each other by sound, and they can visualize a map of their territory. They can also plan ahead and recognize patterns. In other ways, they’re very, very simple animals. Male turkeys will attack anything that looks remotely like a threat, including their own reflections in windows and car doors.

10. IN THE EVENT OF A TURKEY ATTACK, CALL THE POLICE.

They might look silly, but a belligerent turkey is no joke. Male turkeys work very hard to impress other turkeys, and what could be more impressive than attacking a bigger animal? Turkey behavior experts advise those who find themselves in close quarters with the big birds to call the police if things get mean. Until the authorities arrive, they say, your best bet is to make yourself as big and imposing as you possibly can.

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