or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Bird Call

So here's this science, or sciencey, story from MSNBC:

Neanderthals plucked the feathers from falcons and vultures, perhaps for symbolic value, scientists find.
This new discovery adds to evidence that our closest known extinct relatives were capable of creating art.

Scientists investigated the Grotta di Fumane — "the Grotto of Smoke" — in northern Italy, a site loaded with Neanderthal bones. After digging down to layers that existed at the surface 44,000 years ago, the researchers discovered 660 bones belonging to 22 species of birds, with evidence of cut, peeling and scrape marks from stone tools on the wing bones of birds that had no clear practical or culinary value.

"The first traces on the bones of large raptors were found in September 2009," said researcher Marco Peresani, a paleoanthopologist at the University of Ferrara in Italy. "After that, we decided to re-examine the whole bone assemblage recovered from that layer."

These birds included red-footed falcons (Falco vespertinus); bearded lammergeiers (Gypaetus barbatus), a type of vulture ; Alpine choughs (Pyrrhocorax graculus), a relative of crows; and common wood pigeons (Columba palumbus). The birds' plumages come in a variety of colors — the gray of the red-footed falcon, the orange-shaded slate gray of the bearded lammergeier, the black of the Alpine chough, and the blue-gray of the common wood pigeon.

"We know that the use of bird feathers was very widespread and that humans have always attributed a broad and complex value to this practice, ranging from social significance and games to the production of ornamental and ceremonial objects," Peresani told LiveScience. "Reconstructing this usually hidden and poorly known aspect among extinct humans is one of the aims of our research."

Scientists can't figure out why the wingbones of birds with colourful plumage have chip marks on them, therefore art? Seems like kind of a stretch to me. Although the article does have a very nice artist's rendering of a Neanderthal man bedecked with feathers.

But check this out! The Latin name for a relative of a crow is Pyrrhocorax graculus. And does that remind you of anything?

"Graculus" sounds pretty much it must be the Latin version of "grackle". And so it is! Both words sound pretty obviously onomatopoeic: the Romans' name for the jackdaw (a corvid, which is to say a relative of the crow) was "graculus", which is clearly based on the sound that birds in the family make. (But a grackle is not actually a corvid: apparently someone just thought it did.)

"Pyrrhocorax", by the way, is the genus name for choughs, which like crows have black feathers but unlike them have bright-orange legs and feet: "pyrrho-", related to "pyro-", means "flame-coloured", and "corax" means "raven" (another member of the corvids) or "crow".

"Corvid" may look familiar to you if you know the traditional Scots balled "The Twa Corbies" ("The Two Crows") or if you know that in French, "crow" is "corbeau". "Crow" is not descended from the French, being instead another onomatopoeia, based again on the sound of the bird's cry: the Old English word for the bird was "crawe", a vivid word I wish we had kept, because it is pretty much exactly the way they sound.

I could go on in this vein for quite a while (I could, for instance, tell you where "craw", as in "throat", comes from--it's not "crawe"), but I think I'm done for now.


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