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Birds and the Gibraltar Neanderthals

February 26, 2019

The Neanderthal woman nicknamed Nana, reconstructed at the Gibraltar Museum, with feathers. (Credit: S. Finlayson/Gibraltar National Museum)

Clive Finlayson, his wife Geraldine and son Stewart are birdwatchers. They are also anthropological researchers specializing in our Homo sapiens sapiens (aka “human”) and Neanderthal (what most people now acknowledge as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) ancestors, and Clive has been the director of the Gibraltar National Museum for almost 30 years. “The Rock” has turned out to be a trove of Neanderthal bones and discoveries about Neanderthal behavior. Especially their relationship with birds.

Sea levels were significantly lower when Neanderthals lived there, due to the large Ice Age ice caps. Bird bones representing 160 species, about 30% of European avian species of that time, have been found, including Pine Grosbeak, ducks, choughs, larks, gannets, eagles and vultures. Tool marks left on the bones indicate that some of the species on Gibraltar were processed for food or, more controversially, for their feathers. Finlayson reminds us that birds come in many shapes and sizes, with a variety of behaviors and responses to humans, which implies that their exploitation would have required sophisticated knowledge.

How much did the Neanderthals know about the birds? How might their relationships with birds have affected the development of their minds? Read the rest of this book review from Nature in Trail of Feathers to the Neanderthal Mind. The book is anthropologist Clive Finlayson’s The Smart Neanderthal: Bird Catching, Cave Art and the Cognitive Revolution, now out from Oxford University Press.      [Chuck Almdale]



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