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Feather use does not necessarily indicate 'unprecedented cognitive abilities '

Posted by Dr_Matthijs_Vos on 03 Oct 2012 at 16:35 GMT

The authors of this article state that "The hypothesis that Neanderthals exploited birds for the use of their feathers or claws as personal ornaments in symbolic behaviour is revolutionary as it assigns unprecedented cognitive abilities to these hominins." I regard this as an overstatement. First of all, even non-hominid animals such as bower birds use feathers of other species for decoration (of their bowers).[1] This does not mean that these birds 'express symbolic behaviour'. Doing it simply enhances their mating opportunities.[1] Sexual selection is a more parsimonious explanation than 'showing unprecendented cognitive abilities', for these birds.

Highly developed cognitive abilities are likely to have existed in Neanderthals. But burials in combination with ochre use are much stronger evidence for this than the taking and using of feathers from birds. Even a simple bird brain can do that trick.
Comment by: Matthijs Vos
ref: Borgia & Gore, (1986) Anim. Behav. 34, 727-738.

No competing interests declared.

RE: Feather use does not necessarily indicate 'unprecedented cognitive abilities '

JJNegro replied to Dr_Matthijs_Vos on 16 Oct 2012 at 20:20 GMT

It is true that some birds use their own feathers or those of other birds for utilitarian purposes including mate choice. Bowerbirds are a good example, but many others exist. Great tits cover their eggs within the nest cavity using feathers that they actively gather in their territories (Sanz & Navas 2011). They even show colour preferences picking up those feathers. Eider duck females also cover their nest, but with their own down feathers (Kear 1990). In this case, the function seems to be to achieve thermal insulation, as they typically nest in high latitudes and ambient temperatures are generally around the freezing point (or lower). Inuit people collect eider nests for the very same reason: to procure their down and insulate themselves.

However, no bird, and no other animal except humans, are known to place collected feathers on themselves for ornamentation. This is our hypothesis and this use of feathers would be unique and restricted to the genus Homo. Our proposal that Neanderthals had cognitive abilities comparable to those of modern humans is not only due to their use of feathers as ornaments. In isolation, such an statement would be an unacceptable silogism (i.e., modern humans use feathers, modern humans have superior cognitive abilities, thus Neanderthals using feathers have superior cognitive abilities). But this was not our reasoning. Neanderthals made lithic tools, Neanderthals had a diversified diet (Stringer et al. 2008), plus they may have used ornaments. Put together, Neanderthals do not seem to differ culturally from at least some contemporary Homo sapiens. Furthermore, recent genetic evidence shows that their similarity with modern humnans was such that they even exchanged genes. Feather use for ornamentation helps to recognize singular behavioural characteristics in Neanderthals.

Sanz, J. J., García-Navas, V. (2011). Nest ornamentation in blue tits: is feather carrying ability a male status signal? Behavioral Ecology, 22 (2): 240-247.
Kear, J. 1990. Man and Wildfowl. Mackays and Chatham PLC, Chatham, Kent, UK.
Stringer, C.B. et al. 2008. Neanderthal exploitation of marine mammals in Gibraltar. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A., 105(38): 14319–14324.

No competing interests declared.

RE: RE: Feather use does not necessarily indicate 'unprecedented cognitive abilities '

Rosell replied to JJNegro on 18 Oct 2012 at 08:32 GMT

The previous post was made by Juan José Negro on behalf of all authors.

No competing interests declared.