Decorative jewellery art made by
Neanderthal artists: 130,000 BC
The Krapina Neanderthal Site, also known as Hušnjakovo Hill, is a paleolithic archaeological site in northwest Croatia.
The site - a sandstone rock shelter overlooking the Krapinica River, was discovered by the Croatian paleontologist Dragutin Gorjanović-Kramberger (1856-1936), who excavated it over a 6-year period between 1899-1905.
Gorjanović-Kramberger discovered large quantities of Neanderthal bones and teeth, more than 800 Mousterian tools and artifacts, as well as quantities of other fossils, including a collection of white-tailed eagle claws, all of which were extensively documented in his two monographs.
See also La Micoque, in the Dordogne, an archaeological site with Mousterian deposits and one of the longest human occupations.
At the time of the excavation, the eagle claws didn’t seem to be anything special. But key features were overlooked by Gorjanović-Kramberger himself, the bird expert who examined the claws and the museum curators who then stored them.
Luckily, later researchers spotted a series of notches and tool marks on them, indicating that they had been strung together and used either as a necklace or bracelet.
This instantly transformed the collection of ancient eagle bones into a priceless cache of prehistoric art, as yet unrivalled in Europe.
The research team, led by Davorka Radovčić of the Croatian Natural History Museum in Zagreb, and David Frayer of the University of Kansas, described their findings in PLOS ONE in 2015.
The researchers examined eight, mostly intact white-tailed eagle claws from the Krapina site.
All of them contained cut marks and other signs showing they had been worn as some form of a decorative assemblage or personal jewellery.
Certain areas of the claws had developed a polished appearance caused by sweating around the neck, similar to that seen on other personal artifacts like shell bead necklaces.
Some claws bore traces of red ochre and black manganese pigment.
Gorjanović-Kramberger estimated the rock shelter to be roughly 130,000 years old, based on the types of animal remains.
This was later confirmed by Electron spin resonance (ESR) and Uranium-Thorium (U-Th) dating tests, which dated the site and its contents to approximately 130,000 BC.
This makes the Krapina Eagle Jewellery one of the oldest examples of paleolithic art in the archaeological record, after the Trinil Shell Engravings in Java.
The eagle bones, all taken from a single level at the site, add up to more claws than are found in the entire Mousterian period in Europe. This suggests that the Krapina Neanderthals caught eagles for some kind of symbolic purpose.
Perhaps, says Frayer, it was a case of capturing the most powerful aerial predator they could find and then wearing it around their necks, in an attempt to absorb its power.
If so, it's a clear example of abstract and symbolic thought - a phenomenon long considered to be the exclusive hallmark of modern humans, rather than brutish Neanderthals.
But Krapina and other archaeological sites - like the Los Aviones Cave, the Ardales Cave, the Cave of La Pasiega and the Cave of Maltravieso in Spain - show that this type of behavior was practised much earlier and by both H. neanderthalensis and even H. erectus.
The fact that Neanderthals (like moderns) decorated their caves as well as their bodies, strongly implies that both Neanderthals and modern man inherited the facility for symbolic thinking from an even older common ancestor.
From a purely artistic viewpoint, the evidence at Krapina shows that Croatian Neandertals handcrafted jewellery some 85-90,000 years before the arrival of moderns in Europe. So they didn't learn or copy this type of decorative art from modern man.
There are two more standout examples of Neanderthal artistry.
But making eagle necklaces didn't turn Neanderthals into fluffy bunnies. The Krapina Neanderthal site is also notorious for allegations of cannibalism among its residents and also - judging by the huge number of damaged skulls and other evidence of physical injury - for an extreme level of violence.
Neanderthals appeared in Eurasia between 300,000 and 250,000 years ago and vanished abruptly about 35,000 years ago.
(1) Radovčić D, Sršen AO, Radovčić J, Frayer DW (2015) "Evidence for Neandertal Jewelry: Modified White-Tailed Eagle Claws at Krapina." PLOS ONE 10(3) Published: March 11, 2015.
(2) Radovčić, Davorka; Birarda, Giovanni; Oros Sršen, Ankica; Vaccari, Lisa; Radovčić, Jakov; Frayer, David W. (April 2020). "Surface analysis of an eagle talon from Krapina" (PDF). Scientific Reports. 10 (1): 1, 5.