Now that “human ancestors” from 300,000 years ago show comparable mental acuity to ours, the gradual upward slope to man looks more like a cliff.

Neanderthal chieftan:  The big news from Clive Finlayson’s team this week is that Neanderthal cave sites have feathers – not just by chance, but by design.  The BBC News said that the cave’s inhabitants used feathers as “personal ornaments,” indicating that “Neanderthal thinking ability was similar to our own”  (see original open-access paper by Finlayson et al., “Birds of a Feather: Neanderthal Exploitation of Raptors and Corvids,” PLoS ONE 7(9): e45927. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045927).  “The earliest observation of this behaviour in Gibraltar preceded the arrival of Modern Humans in Europe by several thousand years,” they said; “There is therefore no possibility that the practice was acquired from Modern Humans.”

Many modern human groups, such as American Indians, have used feathers for decoration, rank, or status.  It’s an “exclusively human trait.”  The practice presupposes a mental appreciation for the beauty of feathers as well as the ability to obtain them in the first place.  Paleoanthropologists have assumed, based on the lack of cave paintings, beads and figurines at Neanderthal sites, that they had no appreciation for art. Finlayson’s team inspected nearly 1700 sites for evidence, and found numerous bird bones from which the Neanderthals apparently extracted feathers for decoration.  These findings fly in the face of “The prevailing paradigm among Palaeolithic archaeologists today,” they said – the notion that birds were too hard for dumb Neanderthals to catch:

The large number of bones, the variety of species processed and the different temporal periods when the behaviour is observed, indicate that this was a systematic, geographically and temporally broad, activity that the Neanderthals undertook. Our results, providing clear evidence that Neanderthal cognitive capacities were comparable to those of Modern Humans, constitute a major advance in the study of human evolution….

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