Sept. 13, 2004

Bird-wing discovery at Neolithic site prompts question: What makes humans do the crane dance?

Eighty-five hundred years after someone in ancient Anatolia drilled holes in the wings of a crane -- evidently to make a bird costume for a ritual dance -- then hid one wing in a narrow space between mudbrick houses at Çatalhöyük in what today is Turkey, scientists are asking a two-part question: Why stash the wing, along with a pile of other unusual items, in a place where only modern-day archaeologists would be likely to find it? And why do people around the world dance like cranes?

For posing that question -- and attempting to answer it with evidence from an archaeological "dig" through a long-buried Anatolian village and from a museum collection of modern bird bones in Ithaca, N.Y. -- two Cornell University scientists have won the Antiquity Essay Prize for the best article of the year in that scholarly journal. Written by Nerissa Russell, associate professor of anthropology in Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences, and by Kevin McGowan, a research associate in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the puzzle-filled article is titled "Dance of the Cranes: Crane Symbolism at Çatalhöyük and Beyond" and was first published in September 2003.

Says ornithologist McGowan: "Dancing is one of the most obvious displays by any social bird, and all species of cranes do it. It is quite striking and impossible to miss -- by people today as well as those in cultures thousands of years ago" the dance involves stiff-legged marching, running and leaping into the air with spread and beating wings, bowing, pirouetting, stopping and starting and tossing twigs into the air.

Zooarchaeologist Russell (an anthropologist who studies the role of animals in the lives of ancient peoples) adds: "Cranes of various species are found all over the world, with the exception of South America and Antarctica, and so are human crane dancers. They were at ancient Chinese funerals and Okinawan harvest festivals. The Ainu of Japan, the BaTwa of southern Africa and the Ostiaks of Siberia did costumed crane dances. Plutarch writes that Theseus and his companions, after they slew the Minotaur and landed in Delos, performed a crane dance."

One thing zooarchaeologists look for is possible human-made marks on animal bones, Russell explains. She can tell whether an Ice Age mastodon was butchered by meat-eating Paleoindians in North America, for example, or whether the now-extinct animal died from other causes. The Çatalhöyük crane wing bones do not bear discernible butcher markings (although cranes are edible, according to McGowan, who has tasted sandhill crane meat and rates it "quite palatable"). Rather, the bones of a common crane (Grus grus , as determined by comparison with bones in the collections of the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates and the Smithsonian) were pierced with a series of holes.

The holes were placed in a way that makes no sense for dismembering the wing or removing its meat. Rather, the piercings created suitably sized holes for a piece of cord or string. That's why Russell thinks the 8,500-year-old wings -- when they still had feathers on them -- might have been laced on the arms of a dancer to make a costume. Their Antiquity article includes an artist's guess of what such a dance costume might have looked like.

Along with the crane wing in the narrow space between buildings -- and inaccessible until other archaeologists excavated that spot beginning in 1995 -- were the following: a cow's horn, two wild goat horns, the skull of a dog and the stone head of a macelike weapon. The "special" items appear to have been deposited in the space at the same time, probably while the building was being constructed, Russell says, noting some artistic works of that period combine depictions of cranelike birds, cattle and dogs or foxes in the same motif.

"This raises the possibility of an enduring mythic association of cattle, canids and cranes in Neolithic Anatolia," McGowan and Russell wrote in their prize-winning article. While they were pondering crane dance mystery and wondering why people around the world are sufficiently intrigued with the birds to imitate them in dances. Russell and McGowan made a list of human-crane similarities:

o G. grus and H. sapiens are both bipedal and both stand about the same height.

o Cranes and ancient humans lived to about the same age, around 40 years.

o Humans and cranes have similar social structures. Both species congregate in large flocks; form lasting, monogamous pairs; and keep the young in the family for an extended period of juvenile dependency. Humans and cranes tend to move in family groups.

o We humans and those cranes make similar "music." The crane's call, from its long, coiled trachea, sounds like a person playing a bugle.

When one crane starts to dance, others usually join in, McGowan says, adding one more fact about the sociable birds: Sometimes a group of cranes is just standing around and can be encouraged to dance by a human imitating the crane dance. Other times, just the sight of an approaching human will start them dancing.

Whatever the answer to the dance mystery, McGowan, who is an expert on crows, won't have to eat crane for a while. The Antiquity award carries a cash prize of 1,000 British pounds.