Ritual or symbolic behavior is generally taken as a sign of cognitive levels comparable to those of modern humans by palaeoanthropologists studying ancient human populations. The earliest signs of this are often taken as the use of red ochre by Neanderthals in Europe and Archaic modern humans in Africa, but some specialists regard this as slightly suspect, since red ochre does have non-ritual applications.
More generally accepted as evidence of such behavior is the use of shell beads as ornamentation, which appears at a number of sites in Africa and the Middle East from about 100 thousand years ago onwards.
In a paper published in the journal PLoS ONE on 5 March 2012, Eugène Morin of the Department of Anthropology at Trent University and Véronique Laroulandie of Université Bordeaux report the discover of the claws of raptors (birds of prey) apparently modified for use as jewelry at a number of Neanderthal burial sites in France and Italy, dating to between 90 000 and 40 000 years ago.
Toolmarks on raptor claws. (A) Golden Eagle claw with flesh. (B-C) Golden Eagle claw with cuts dated to 90 000 years ago, from Combe Grenal in France. (D-E) White Tailed Eagle claw with cut marks, dated to about 60 000 years ago from Les Fieux in Francs. (F-G) White Tailed Eagle claw with cuts dated to about 60 000 years ago from Les Fieux in France. From Morin and Laroulandie (2012).
Morin and Laroulandie note that raptors are large, impressive birds, still venerated and used symbolically by many modern cultures, so the use of raptor claws as ritual or symbolic objects is not in itself surprising. They also note that Neanderthal populations, with a few noted exceptions, did not apparently eat much bird meat, and that the claws of a raptor would in any case be considered fairly inedible by most modern humans, and therefore logically Neanderthals as well, making it less likely that the marks are the result of predation on the birds.
Raptors are large, impressive birds, still used symbolically by many modern cultures.