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About all those ‘Neanderthals wore feathers’ headlines

September 18, 2012

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal male, from the Neanderthal Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Some pretty amazing news from the world of paleoanthropology landed in the past day: Evidence that Neanderthals in prehistoric Europe were adorning themselves with bird feathers. This gives us more proof that our hominin cousins (maybe/probably kissin’ cousins, at that) were capable of advanced symbolic thought and behavior.

Well, that’s the headline on at least one prominent site, the Scientific American blog. (Update: Another one here and here). Other sites were a bit more cautious, stressing this is a “possibility” only (see, for instance, livescience). It’s a pretty compelling image, easy to wrap our heads around. The only problem with this: There’s actually no real evidence of it.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a great new study out that convinces me, at least, that Neanderthals widely spread out in space and time were exploiting scavenger birds. I highly encourage you give it a read, it’s not overly technical, and the authors do a terrific job working you through their logic and evidence. You can find it here, at the peer-reviewed, open-access journal PLOSone.

The problem at work is how media summarize archaeological findings. The authors of the study were careful to couch their language and not say “we know Neanderthals were decorating themselves with feathers.” For the simple reason that we don’t know that. And we can’t know that with the available evidence.

This raises an important point about studying the past. We can’t observe behavior directly, so we necessarily construct our images of the past through analogy. That’s simply a comparison that two things are formally similar, and an inference that other things are therefore similar. In this case, the comparison is that Neanderthals were removing wings from scavenger birds like crows, as some living groups of people do today. And the inference is that, just like the modern people whose behavior we can observe, the Neanderthals were therefore using the wing feathers for decoration.

You see the distinction: All the evidence demonstrates is that Neanderthals were removing bird wings. That’s what the researchers were correct to state unequivocally, because they presented strong material evidence for it.

But we have to be very careful how we pile up the inferences. This is a constant source of difficulty for archaeologists. We spend rather a lot of time thinking about this. Because of course, when you argue by analogy – from present to past – you risk creating an image of the past that is a mirror to the present.

In short, though people today remove crow wings for the purpose of collecting their feathers for adornment, we don’t have any direct evidence that Neanderthals were doing it for the same reason.

That’s not to say it’s unreasonable to assume it, but doing so is just that: An assumption. Barring what would have to be astounding preservation of a future Neanderthal site, we’re unlikely to find direct evidence of feather adornment. What we do know is that they were using birds that were difficult to catch for reasons that (probably) went beyond simply food sources. The authors of the study made an important contribution, and one that certainly fires the imagination. It’s a pity some of the reporting can’t capture the contribution, through a focus on the guesses.

UPDATE: Right after posting this, I came across this blog post by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, an honest-to-goodness Neanderthal expert. She does a terrific job putting the findings into context, run there and give it a read.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 19, 2012 4:01 am

    Hi, thanks for the kind words and for sending readers my way!

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