Ice Age Fashion: The Murky Origins of Neanderthal Clothing

The Neanderthals had a good run. They were around from at least 200,000 years ago to about 42,000 years ago, only a couple millennia after they began to interbreed with modern humans. After that window, all physical traces of them disappeared

Throughout that period, though, Neanderthals would have certainly experienced some cold weather — so much that it’s unlikely they would have walked around completely naked. In fact, some research has shown that the temperatures were likely too cold in parts of Europe during certain eras for any inhabitants to have survived without wearing clothes or making use of shelter, like sleeping under fur bed covers.

The trouble is, clothing isn’t made from materials that typically last very long, even tens of thousands of years before the rise of fast fashion. And evidence like needles has yet to be found in association with Neanderthals.

“The archaeological record is very poor in this case,” says Abel Moclán, an archaeologist at the Regional Archaeological Museum in Madrid.

That record is so poor that some research suggests Neanderthals didn’t wear clothes at all. Scientists studying the DNA of body lice, which live in clothing but feed on humans, found that the insects only originated about 72,000 to 42,000 years ago, when modern humans migrated out of Africa. This may suggest clothing wasn’t around beforehand.

Still, despite the lack of much direct evidence of Neanderthal clothing, researchers have found some indirect signs that reveal what our near-hominid cousins may have worn to keep warm — or show off their own unique style.

Neanderthals May Have Hunted Carnivores for Their Furs

One major line of evidence involves the remains of carnivores, which are rarely associated with Neanderthal sites compared to the remains of herbivorous animals. Notably, hominids didn’t seem to consume much carnivore meat in the Neanderthal period.

For a recent study published in Quaternary Science Reviews, Moclán and his colleagues examined 13,000 animal fossils associated with Neanderthal sites. They only found one case of a carnivore with clear cut marks on the bones, in a sediment layer dating roughly between 71,000 and 77,000 years ago. These cut marks were made on the phalanx — the last toe bone before the claw — of a hyena found at the Navalmaíllo Rock Shelter north of Madrid.

Carnivores typically don’t have much meat on their claws, so it’s unlikely that these butcher marks were made in order to extract meat. Furthermore, Moclán says that the marks suggest that the people who cut them were trying to extract the hyena’s pelt.

“It can only be related to the extraction of the pelt, because you don’t have meat here and you don’t have marrow,” he says, adding that the marks themselves compare well to other examples of pelt extraction in the fossil record. “They are clearly the type of movement you would need to make to extract the bones from the pelt.”

This indirect line of evidence suggests that the Neanderthals using the pelt either for clothing, ritualistic reasons, or both. “The symbolic world starts with Neanderthals,” Moclán says.

This discovery isn’t the only case of animal remains associated with Neanderthals. Researchers have discovered cut marks that could be related to pelt extraction on everything from lynx and lions to bears. But the majority of mammal remains related to pelt extraction come from herbivores more commonly used for food, like red deer, horses and aurochs — the extinct ancestors of modern-day domestic cows.

While in most cases, these cut marks are associated with meat extraction on herbivores, some cuts indicate pelt removal was taking place, as well.


Read More: Neanderthals Also Had Superior Toolmaking Abilities, Not Just Humans


Neanderthals Might Have Worn Eagle Talons As Jewelry

Mammals aren’t the only animal remains from that era found with cut marks. A number of birds dating to Neanderthal periods also have signs that feathers, or other inedible parts, were also removed — raising the possibility that they were used for jewelry or other accessories.

One fantastic set of eight eagle talons, for example, might have been strung together as necklaces in Croatia. This set was discovered at the Kaprina Neanderthal site more than a century ago, and dates back to about 130,000 years ago. They were subsequently forgotten until researchers reexamined them in the Croatian Natural History Museum.

The research team found cut marks on these talons consistent with a targeted removal, publishing the results in PLOS One in 2015. In fact, the specimens were likely strung together as a kind of necklace, the authors believe.

“These remains clearly show that the Krapina Neandertals made jewelry well before the appearance of modern humans in Europe, extending ornament production and symbolic activity early into the European Mousterian,” the authors wrote in the study. The European Mousterian is a tool-making tradition associated mostly in Europe with Neanderthals.

Another study of remains at a Neanderthal site in Spain found 80,000-year-old eagle claw bones that may have been used symbolically, based on cut marks. Still, it’s unclear if these were bones were related to clothing, jewelry or other accessories.


Read More: The Fascinating World of Neanderthal Diet, Language and Other Behaviors


New Neanderthal Threads

Taken together, it’s possible that some Neanderthals were using animals pelts to keep warm, at least some of the time. Some of these clothes or accessories also may have also been symbolic.

But whatever they were wearing before, some evidence suggests a big change in style might have happened when Homo sapiens brought new fashions into Europe about 42,000 years ago.

At this time, researchers begin to find more accessories in association with Neanderthals. In Bulgaria, researchers found what appear to be pendants made from cave bear teeth dating from roughly the time when humans arrived. These pendants also resemble others found in France and Spain, linked to Neanderthals dating from 40,000 to 44,000 years ago. The implication is that both humans and Neanderthals may have shared some accessories.

It’s hard to say whether Neanderthals were really using these items as clothing. Neanderthals may have picked up pendants or other accessories from humans but never wore them, for example. Their appearance at Neanderthal sites may also just be coincidence.

But during this period, humans and Neanderthals also interbred to a degree. So regardless of whether our evolutionary kin wore clothing before this happened, people that carry Neanderthal genes certainly started to. In fact, since modern humans likely have around 1 to 2 percent of Neanderthal genes in their DNA, models with Neanderthal ancestry are walking catwalks and attending fashion shows today.


Read More: What Exactly Happened to The Neanderthals and Why Did They Go Extinct?


Article Sources

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Joshua Rapp Learn is an award-winning D.C.-based science writer. An expat Albertan, he contributes to a number of science publications like National Geographic, The New York Times, The Guardian, New Scientist, Hakai, and others.

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