Amid active volcanoes and sacred birds, a human-Neanderthal romance

Amid active volcanoes and sacred birds, a human-Neanderthal romance March 29, 2023

Three Neanderthal teenagers left more than 50 footprints in rain-softened pyroclastic ash and mud about 350,000 years ago on a slope of the Roccamonfina Volcano in southern Italy.
One took a switchback route down the slope, another went straight and the third took a wider, curved path, almost as if they were playing a game: Who can get down quicker?
The young trio left their footprints in the ashy mud very soon after the volcano erupted and may have witnessed it from afar. Further study showed the travel route was connected to an established Neanderthal path through the area.

Neanderthal woman
A 2004 reconstruction of a Neanderthal woman’s appearance. (Bacon Cph/Creative Commons)

The ‘Capital of Pre-History’

There’s a remarkably high correlation between Neanderthal settlements and active volcanic regions in Europe and the Near East. The only active volcanic region in France is known as the “Capital of Prehistory,” featuring more than 15 Neanderthal settlements.
The only active volcanic area in southwest Germany also coincides with a cluster of Neanderthal sites. In Spain the only active volcanic area is on the northeast coast of the Mediterranean, where a major Neanderthal settlement was found at Serinyà Prehistoric Cave Park in Banyoles. From the Sea of Galilee southwest to the Mediterranean coast is the only active volcanic region in Israel, and the only region where Neanderthals settled.
The choice to settle in volcanic areas may be related to the fact that eruptions perpetually recharge the soil with minerals, creating ecosystems that reliably support a wide range of flora. The droppings of migratory birds over countless millennia also contributed nutrients to the soil.

Birds and volcanoes

There’s a high correlation worldwide between volcanic regions and bird migration routes – the places where Neanderthals settled were all located where two global bird migration flyways converge, producing high bird populations and a wider diversity of species.
Piles of wing bones and talons found in caves across Europe in the last decade have revealed that Neanderthals had a very special relationship with birds. A 2010 study published in the journal PNAS concluded that Neanderthals plucked the feathers of raptors at Fumane Cave in northern Italy, probably to be used as ritual ornaments in “the social and symbolic sphere…”

garden art
A mythical Garden of Eden. (Catherine Masters/wondrousmoonstudio)

Of the 22 bird species found in Fumane Cave, the most common were black vultures, golden eagles, and red-footed falcons. Curiously, all the wing bones were gathered in a pile against the east wall of the cave. In a similar case, Neanderthals buried only the wing bones of crows in Cova Negra cave in southeastern Spain.

At the Zaskalnaya VI site in Crimea, a Neanderthal made seven equidistant notches on a raven bone about 40,000 years ago, which some archaeologists believe were made for symbolic purposes.
Neanderthals carefully removed wing feathers mostly from golden eagles, white-tailed eagles, bearded vultures, Eurasian black vultures, and ravens, according to a study cited in Clive Finlayson’s The Smart Neanderthal: Cave Art, Bird Catching, and the Cognitive Revolution (2019, Oxford University Press).
Finlayson concluded that Neanderthals perceived certain birds as sacred and used feathers as symbolic ornaments to perform rituals. He wrote that a “growing body of data that demonstrates the appearance of modern behavior in extinct [Neanderthal] populations of Europe, well before the immigration of humans.”

Bird-talon necklaces?

In caves from Spain to France, Italy and Croatia, archaeologists believe Neanderthals carefully removed the talons from dead birds, mostly from the rare imperial eagle. The study identified 10 sites where Neanderthals removed talons, all located in a swath of territory where the East Atlantic and Mediterranean/Black Sea flyways converge.
Although physical evidence is elusive, many scholars believe the talons were worn around the neck, a practice found in later indigenous cultures. A study published in Science Advances in 2019 argued that if Neanderthals wore talons as ornaments, it means they “had social and cultural structures complex enough to convey the use and meaning of [the talons] both in time, from generation to generation, and through space. This represents a remarkable advance with respect to our knowledge about the symbolic behavior of the Neanderthals…”

The study added that later human cultures “have used raptor claws/talon for the elaboration of a great variety of elements associated with rituals, dances, personal adornments, grave goods, etc.” Aztec Eagle Warriors wore talons on their knees.

Aztec Eagle Warrior with eagle talons on his knees. (Gary Todd/Wikimedia Commons)

Guess who came to dinner for 30,000 years?

For more than 150 years western culture made a caricature of Neanderthals, depicting them as apelike, stupid and brutish. For those not keeping up with taxonomic journals, the joke’s on us.
It turns out we’re the same species, reunited by genetic science as long-lost brothers and sisters. We’re Homo sapiens sapiens and they’re Homo sapiens neanderthalensis.
Just a decade ago, many scholars argued against the idea that humans ever interbred with Neanderthals. Now there’s conclusive evidence that humans and Neanderthals regularly engaged in coitus between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago, mostly in the Near East but also in Central Asia. But that’s not all. A recent excavation at at Nesher Ramla north of Jerusalem revealed a village of Neanderthal and archaic human hybrids thriving between 140,000 and 120,000 years ago.

Rebecca Wragg Sykes, author of Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, wrote that “… contact and hybridizing happened a lot more often than we’ll
probably ever know.” So far there’s no evidence of violence, only sex, and geneticists continue to discover the true extent of the intercontinental romp. In terms of mixing DNA, the agreeable relations between the two subspecies were indisputably a major factor in Homo sapiens sapiens becoming the robust and successful genetic specimen it is today.
It’s impossible to say what the verbal communications between the two sub-species sounded like, but the scientific community has finally come to the conclusion that yes, Neanderthals could talk Perhaps a hybrid language developed. Over 30,000+ years, spontaneous romantic verse can’t be ruled out.

Planck Institute: Language is a million years old

Most scholars have long assumed that Neanderthals used some form of language, but the proof has been piling up over the last 20 years, beginning with the discovery that Neanderthals had the FOXP2 gene, believed to be responsible for speech and language.
Analysis of the hypoglossal canal and hyoid bone in a Neanderthal skull from Kebara Cave in Israel suggested the vocal apparatus was similar to modern humans. And in 2021, a study of inner ear bones found “that Neanderthals evolved the auditory capacities to support a vocal communication system as efficient as modern human speech.”

It seems that language may go back much further, according to the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics at Nijmegen, which recently concluded that spoken language was likely practiced at least 600,000 years ago by Homo heidelbergensis and may have emerged more than a million years ago.
The institute cited the continual widening of the hominin nerve canal controlling the tongue and a steady increase in the size of the cerebral cortex, which governs speech and social cues. Leaving open the possibility of language developing more than a million years ago means the institute suspects Homo erectus also spoke a language.
Archaeologists have found that Homo erectus brains kept getting bigger over its two million years on the planet, suggesting speech and social cues became more sophisticated over that incredible span of time. When Homo erectus finally died out as recently as 50,000 years ago, their brain size exceeded 1000 cm3, the same as the smallest humans.
Whether Homo erectus spoke a language may be less a question of scientific proof than a matter of common sense.

Rendering of Homo erectus. (Henry Gilbert and Kathy Schick 1/Wikimedia Commons)

The original long-distance trekker

A combination of evolutionary changes made Homo erectus the original road-tripper, including arched feet and a balancing organ in the inner ear that made it possible to run while keeping eyes trained on a distant point.
A foot taller than previous primates, Homo erectus was relatively hairless, allowing for more efficient perspiration during daytime travel over open terrain.
Would it be possible to trek thousands of miles over unknown territory and spread sustainable populations across Africa, the Mediterranean region, the Near East, India, Southeast Asia and northeast China, all without engaging in oral communication? Or singing songs to pass the time?

Bonded in birdsong?

It’s plausible that all species of the genus Homo spoke a language based on birdsong. Humans did, according to a 2013 linguistic study at MIT. A 2014 genetic study at Duke found that both humans and birds share a set of about 50 genes that are activated when learning to talk and sing. If Neanderthals had developed language from birdsong much earlier it would certainly help explain why the two sub-species got along so well.
The 30,000-year-plus love affair between humans and Neanderthals ended in the latter’s extinction, possibly due to diseases such as herpes that were brought to Europe by humans from Africa, according to a recent study.

The proof of a deep bond between the two sub-species can be found in the fact that after the extinction, humans lived in the same locations where Neanderthals had lived. And humans continued to use feathers and talons for ritual purposes, to this day. Indigenous mythology surrounding volcanoes is often related to romance, with eruptions caused by anger or jealousy.

Finally it’s possible that both Neanderthals and humans used red ocher in relation to burials because it was the same color as blood, and the same color as lava, the divine blood of the eternally regenerating volcano.

(Ben H. Gagnon is the author of Church of Birds: an eco-history of myth and religion, coming Friday March 31 from John Hunt Publishing in London; now available to order. More information can be found at this website, including a link to a YouTube video on the book.)

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