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Neandertals Adorned with Feathers, Thinking Symbolically September 22, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.
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Here is a wonderful example of why I, as a philosopher, have a passion for every bit of new info and speculation coming out about human evolution. To me there is no deeper philosophical question than the one about human identity: Who are we? Who were we? And how do we differ from those who are our close relatives today (the apes), and who were our even closer living relatives in the past (now three separate relatively recent groups of hominins coexisting with early Homo sapiens: the Neandertals, the Denisovans, and the elusive “Hobbits”, Homo floresiensis)? The categories we used to indicate our human extraordinary nature have been steadily challenged in the last decades. We used to be the only tool users. Then, because we found that apes (and birds) use tools, too, we became the only tool makers. But apes and birds make tools, too. So we became the only rational species. Ah, but now it turns out that many other species are quite capable of basic reasoning. Then we were the only species that has self-recognition. But so do apes, dolphins, elephants, ravens, magpies, pigs, and maybe even (if we are to believe the very latest findings) all big-brained, social species. But aren’t we at least the only ones who deliberately create art, and use body decorations? Because a brain that can conceive of art and decorations is capable of thinking symbolically. As late as ten years ago the great anthropologist Ian Tattersall claimed that humans were the only ones with the capacity for symbolic thinking. The Neandertals, with their big brains, still didn’t count as a self-aware species because they didn’t have symbolic thinking. Well, according to Scientific American blogger Kate Wong, they did:

Experts agree that Neandertals hunted large game, controlled fire, wore animal furs and made stone tools. But whether they also engaged in activities deemed to be more advanced has been a matter of heated debate. Some researchers have argued that Neandertals lacked the know-how to effectively exploit small prey, such as birds, and that they did not routinely express themselves through language and other symbolic behaviors. Such shortcomings put the Neandertals at a distinct disadvantage when anatomically modern humans availed of these skills invaded Europe—which was a Neandertal stronghold for hundreds of thousands of years—and presumably began competing with them, so the story goes.

Over the past couple decades hints that Neandertals were savvier than previously thought have surfaced, however. Pigment stains on shells from Spain suggest they painted, pierced animal teeth from France are by all appearances Neandertal pendants. The list goes on. Yet in all of these cases skeptics have cautioned that the evidence is scant and does not establish that such sophistication was an integral part of the Neandertal gestalt.

But now some new results have come in: Neandertals, across the entire western Eurasia, wore feathers they harvested from birds of prey—in particular black feathers.

Exactly what the Neandertals were doing with the feathers is unknown, but because they specifically sought out birds with dark plumage, the researchers suspect that our kissing cousins were festooning themselves with the resplendent flight feathers. Not only are feathers beautiful, they are also lightweight, which makes them ideal for decoration, Finlayson points out. “We don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many modern human cultures across the world have used them.”

Speakers at a conference on human evolution held in Gibraltar last week extolled the study, and agreed with the team’s interpretation of the remains as evidence that Neandertals adorned themselves with the feathers as opposed to using them for some strictly utilitarian purpose. If the cutmarked bones from Gibraltar had been found in association with early modern humans, researchers would assume that the feathers were symbolic, says paleoanthropologist John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin notes. The same standards should apply to Neandertals. “We’ve got to now say that Neandertals were using birds. Period. They were using them a lot. They were wearing around their feathers,” he comments. “They clearly cared. A purely utilitarian kind of person does not put on a feathered headdress.”

So. The Neandertals had symbolic thinking after all. (And those researchers who pointed out, over ten years ago, that the jewelry found in Neandertal archeological sites would indicate as much, as well as the little fact that they buried their dead, they can now feel vindicated.) And how far back in time did the symbolic, self-aware thinking originate?


“[This] is something many of us thought was unique to Homo sapiens,” [John] Shea adds. “But [it] turns out to be either convergently evolved with Neandertals or more likely something phylogenetically ancient we simply haven’t picked up in the more ancient archaeological record. It’s probably something [our common ancestor] Homo heidelbergensis did, we just haven’t found archaeological evidence for it yet.”

Homo heidelbergensis. At least 500,000 years ago. So we are not unique in our symbolic thinking. Now that doesn’t mean humans are not exceptional. Of course we are. We have managed to extend our influence and interest into space (literally), and time, by our research and imagination, reaching into the dim past as well as affecting and imagining possible futures. We can leave our legacy through our languages, our imagery (provided it doesn’t all go digital and disappears), our artifacts, our music, our buildings (and also the strip mines, the polluted lakes, the mass graves of discarded civilians, and all the other less wonderful stuff that is part of human history). Our reach, for better and for worse, is far greater than the other social animals on this planet. But the point is, it now seems to be fundamentally a matter of degree, not of a radically different kind.  



1. Paul J. Moloney - September 25, 2012

A response to this post will probably take more than one comment because the post is filled with other implications related to the topic.

I should preface some of these comments by stating that I assume that evolution to some degree and form is a scientific fact. Those who hold creationism to be a scientific theory do not know what science is. If they do not understand something as simple as the scientific method, they must not have any significant understanding of religion either.

As far as I know, evolution has to do with the development of biological life. Creationism would seemingly have to do with the origins of the universe, but still it wouldn’t be a scientific theory. Science looks for observable, in someway, physical causes. Evolution follows upon a created universe or a universe that has always been.

At least by appearance, the physical evidence favors atheistic thinking. I mean that it seems the inorganic preceded the organic, which would mean that life came from the lifeless rather than from God. Some of us reason that something cannot come from nothing, which also means something cannot receive a property from something else that does not have that property, that is, the lifeless cannot give life to something else.

There is something that sets humans apart from other animals. We are classified as a distinct species, which means there is a specific difference between us and other species. What we have in common with other animals is the fact that we are animals. We are not less animal or more animal than other animals. Whatever sets us apart from other animals does not make us less animal.

What does seem to set us apart from other animals is morality. Not even a Christian can consider any other animal a sinner. If an another animal kills a human being that animal is not considered immoral.

There are two theories of the origin of the universe that are similar. One is that the universe came from nothing and the other is that God created the universe from nothing. Either way, the universe came from nothing. God and nothing seem to have equal footing in these theories. Personally, I rule out chance having anything to do with the origin of the world. This is because chance is an accidental cause. If there is a accidental cause, it has to be preceded by a substantial cause because accidents follow upon substance. Also, properly speaking, what happens by chance is outside one’s intention. There has to be intellectual intention before there can be chance. Aristotle gives the example of someone going to a city for certain intention and by chance runs into someone who owes him money. Aristotle criticized those thinkers who said that everything in the universe is determined but that the universe itself happened by chance.

Scripture can be a starting point for thought, even if it is a point to be refuted. When Genesis states that man can from the slime of the earth that statement corresponds to the biological theory that life began in the sea. We will never remember having been another animal. We have never known ourselves being other than human. For the sake of argument, if Adam were the first man, he would not have known himself to be other than human. A species cannot be two different species at the same time. Adam could not be homo sapien and non-homo sapien at the same time. If we did come from another species, it would seem that we came from a species that looked just like us, at least that would correspond to the Genesis version. The endowment of reason wouldn’t seem to change our appearance. Through evolution the species before us could have developed the senses to the point that made them ready for the endowment of reason. The problem with this is that it necessitates a new creation and that is beyond the scope of science and philosophy. Adam was not who he was until the species before him was created anew. Adam was not Adam when he was a member of another species.

Our origins are something definite. They are an historical fact whatever those facts are. The problem is we do not know what the facts are, no matter how definite they are. We began at this time in this place; we just don’t know when the time and where the place was. Even if the Genesis story is to be discounted, it can bring up other questions. Did humanity, as we know it, begin with one person, or did it begin with two or more? The process towards humanity was very gradual but was the endpoint something immediate?

2. Paul Moloney - September 27, 2012

Anyone who has read my previous comment can see that I am way over my head in speculation. The previous comment was more of a thinking out loud. I am displaying my ignorance in order to see what direction to go in order to acquire more knowledge on the topic. If I waited to be certain about what I wrote, I would never write anything.

If we were derived from apes, it seems it was through some other species. If humans have a common origin, so do all animals. The facts seem to be that we were derived from the same amoeba as the rest of the animals. Even if we were derived from apes, we were never apes. None of us was ever an amoeba, even though without the amoeba we would have no existence.

At one time there was no life and then there was. At one time there was no human intelligence and then there was. It seems that something had to have happened. If there is such a thing as creation it is not an observable happening. If creation were a reality, it would have had to seemingly occur in time, and there is no evidence of that except that at one time something was not here and then later it was here. Creation has been thought to occur before time. Since Nina has provoke so much thought in me, I began to wonder if creation could, in a sense, occur in time through the moment. A moment can be either a very short period of time, the present, or the end and beginning of two periods of time. In the last sense of the word, a moment is not a period of time but rather a boundary of time. It is both end and beginning. I wonder if creation could act then, and then still remain outside time.

Still, accepting creation as a scientific principle would mean the end of science. If God is intelligent, God would not want the end of science.

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