Challenging the Dichotomy Between "Natural" and "Cultural" in Museums: A Case Study of Bird Symbolism and Human Origins

By David Lichty
2020, Vol. 12 No. 11 | pg. 1/1


Many natural history museums use the categories of “cultural” and “natural” as a means of separating exhibition content. This article challenges this practice and the inherent paradigm that supports it. By dismissing the integral connection between these categories, it is possible to overlook humanity's role in the manipulation of the environment and how the environment has affected the development of human culture and human evolution. This article argues that it is essential for museums to design exhibitions without separating culture and nature, thereby informing our collective understanding of the importance and significance of the role biodiversity has had and continues to have in our human identity and experience. The ways in which the loss of biodiversity can result in the loss of cultural diversity are explored through an examination of the cultural symbolism of birds, specifically eagles. With a new understanding of just how closely the “cultural” world and the “natural” world are connected, curatorial process and interpretation can be better informed and challenge the current categorical paradigm in natural history museums.

For anyone who has had the pleasure of visiting natural history museums, they might have noticed that a distinction is often made between what is categorized as “natural history” and what is categorized as “cultural history.” Human-made artifacts and taxidermy are often separated, as seen in the halls dedicated to taxidermy in the American Museum of Natural History, the Chicago Field Museum and the Smithsonian National Natural History Museum. Canadian museums perpetuate the same practice of separation as well. The Royal Ontario Museum is one such museum that creates this degree of separation. As an institution focused on being a “champion for the natural and cultural worlds,”1 their exhibitions are bound to these categories. The plural term “worlds” suggests that there are two distinct realities separating their content. Even though the mission, vision and mandate of other natural history museums do not explicitly make this distinction, the organization of their exhibitions and lack of human representation in the classification of what is “natural” demonstrates that similar semantic categories are being upheld. Why is there such a distinction and separation? The separation of these topics creates a narrative of detachment between humanity and the history of our planet. This could not be further from the truth. Human existence is bound to the environment of our planet. Our stories derive from interaction with ourselves, nature and the world around us. Culture does not emerge independently of the earth; instead, the interactions between ourselves and natural landscapes shape the ways cultures manifest. It is also wrong to suggest that humans, in turn, do not affect nature. The ever-growing evidence indicates that humans have changed the natural environment to such an extent that the earth has entered a new geological age, the Anthropocene, named after Humanity’s effect on climate.

This article explores how the curatorial process could be used to incorporate these categories into one without losing the complexity and importance of both by using current scientific research as a way of connecting what is cultural and what is natural. This article proposes a theoretical exhibition that presents “the natural” and “the cultural” as one world. It will demonstrate how curatorial research for this exhibition can use the symbolism of birds as a means of exploring cultures and beliefs, in tandem with nature. Different cultures interact with various species of birds and these interactions manifest in symbolic representations of birds through cultural artifacts. Using a culture's interactions with animals as a form of cultural analysis could be done with any animals but exploring the cultural representations and symbolic use of birds specifically was done purposefully for two reasons. The first is that birds are one of the only class of animals that are on every continent.2 The wide ecological range of birds makes them a strong possibility for a human universal; all peoples have lived in an area inhabited by at least one bird species. The second reason will be the exploration of the rest of this essay. The abundance of birds does not explain human fascination with bird symbolism; it only provides the opportunity for inspiration. The universality of birds in symbolic cultural representation is no coincidence but rather, a deeply embedded aspect of our collective humanity, connected to our biological evolution and interaction with the natural world. To explore this idea in-depth, we turn to the most current paleo-archeological research on eagle symbolism which sheds light on the complex subject of human origins and the development of cultural symbols as a natural phenomenon.

A skeleton of a golden eagle would mark the start of the exhibition but also the start of humanity’s relationship with birds as symbolic objects. The question is asked; how far back can archeologists find examples of humans using birds as a form of symbolism? To understand this question, it is necessary to understand what the term “human” means. “Human” does not just refer to us (Homo sapiens); it refers to the broader genus of Homo, a linage that is over 2.5 million years old. This distinction broadens the scope of analysis. The ancestral family tree for humanity is precisely that, a tree. There are branches and twigs that all diverge from a single common ancestor. This perspective of what it means to be human needs to be taken into account when asking the question. To answer the question, let us consider the behaviour of our human cousins, Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals), and their relationship with the golden eagle and its symbolism. In recent archeological discoveries, there is evidence demonstrating that Neanderthals had been using eagle talons as a form of symbolism before there was contact between them and Homo sapiens, 100 000 years ago.3 The remains of golden eagles demonstrate that Neanderthals were systematically targeting golden eagles to use their talons as a form of jewelry and burial rites. 4

The significance of Neanderthals using birds as a form of symbolism is twofold. The first is that it challenges the narrative that Homo sapiens are unique. Evaluating a subject on the quality of its uniqueness requires a degree of separation between the two subjects in the comparison. Often, as we see in museums, this creates the distinction between what is “natural” and what is “cultural.” Until recently, the perspective among paleo-anthropologists was that the exploitation of birds marked a certain degree of cognitive complexity that was only associated with the development of behaviorally modern Homo sapiens.5 Knowing that other human species were capable of creating sophisticated cultures starts to dissolve the bias that culture is something separate from the natural world. Culture is a by-product of the natural process of evolution and, therefore, a part of the natural world. The symbolic use of natural objects is not unique to Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. New discoveries show that our common ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis, used carnivore bones symbolically in burial rites.6 Given that this common ancestor also had the capability of symbolic thought suggests that the human ability to create culture is a deep biological process, a result of millions of years of natural selection in human evolution. The origins of culture can be traced back even further than the origins of the genus Homo. The extensive fieldwork of Jane Goodall demonstrates that chimpanzees create and participate in culture.7 Since both humans and chimpanzees are capable of culture, it points to the origin of culture starting, at the very least, with our common ancestor with chimpanzees. We, as a species, diverged from chimpanzees between 13-4 million years ago, marking culture as a biological process with a possible 10 million-year-old history.

The second significant aspect resulting from the discovery that Neanderthals used eagles symbolically is that it provides an example of how a group’s interaction with the natural world can create symbolic cultural objects. The golden eagle was one of the most abundant raptors in Europe during the Paleolithic Era.8 The discoveries of Neanderthals using birds to create symbolic representations and material culture challenges the notion that Homo sapiens’ culture is separate because we are the only animal that participates in this type of behaviour. Instead, these discoveries should help integrate Homo sapiens into the larger narrative of humans creating culture through interaction with the natural world. Moreover, this process can be seen across cultures and across the globe. If the “cultural world” were genuinely separate from the “natural world,” we would expect to see symbolic representations of birds that do not match their environment or a monoculture that only uses one species of bird regardless of the environment. This is not the case. What birds are chosen for symbolic representation has a direct connection to the natural world. The golden eagle is a good example once again; only cultures and societies that have had interaction with this species of eagle will use the eagle as a form of symbolism. For example, many Native American cultures have had interaction with the golden eagle and have integrated their feathers into ritual objects.9 This is perfectly illustrated in Ojibwa eagle fans, items common to many natural history museums because the fans are constructed from golden eagle feathers.10 However, cultures that do not have contact with golden eagles end up using other eagle species from their own specific geolocations. The Australian Aboriginals, for example, used the wedge-tailed eagle in their symbolic representations on 4000-year-old rock art.11

This interaction with the natural world continues today. Modern symbols, especially national emblems and coats of arms, use eagles symbolically. The eagle used is always an eagle that is common to the area like the bald eagle for the United States, the golden eagle for Eygpt, the imperial eagle for Germany and the harpy eagle for Panama. Understanding our history of using birds as symbols, we know that these modern-day uses of birds in symbolism is not a coincidence but something to do with how each one of these nations has interacted with their surrounding environments. Our evolutionary predisposition to symbolic behaviour has and will continue to motivate us to interact with the world in this way. How this process will continue in the future is yet to be seen. Birds have been an important part of our history for hundreds of thousands of years. In this way, the existence of birds has provided us with the figurative means to express essential aspects of our humanity. How will the worldwide decline of bird populations impact this symbolic expression? There is currently a decline in many bird populations across the globe with a startling 30% decline in the population of breeding aged birds in North America.12 The endangerment of bird species has already had a significant cultural impact. One example is evidenced in the American Eagle Feather Law. Due to the decline in bald and golden eagle populations, Native Americans who intend to use eagle parts or feathers for spiritual or religious means must obtain these parts from a national repository rather than through traditional practices.13 How much further still will our expressions be affected by the decline of other species and ecosystems?

While the integral relationship between human cultural history and natural history is brought to light in the example of the eagle, this is not a singular example. For millennia, humans have drawn on their natural environments for symbols of cultural expression. To ignore or even go so far as to deny the connection the natural world has on humanity’s cultural practices invites thinking that the loss of one does not affect the loss of the other. It is the responsibility of public educators, and therefore museums, to be among those who champion the importance of clarity in this matter. Recognizing the integral connection between our natural history and our cultural history might mean our future.


Axelson, Gustave. “Vanishing: More Than 1 in 4 Birds Has Disappeared in the Last 50 Years.” All About Birds, September 19, 2019.

Brownstone, Arni. “Eagle Wing Fan.” Eagle wing fan – Works – ROM Online Collection, December 31, 1874.

Carbonell, Eudald, and Marina Mosquera. "The emergence of a symbolic behaviour: the sepulchral pit of Sima de los Huesos, Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos, Spain." Comptes Rendus Palevol 5, no. 1-2 (2006): 155-160.

Finlayson, Stewart, Geraldine Finlayson, Francisco Giles Guzman, and Clive Finlayson. "Neanderthals and the cult of the Sun Bird." Quaternary Science Reviews (2019).

How birds spread around the globe. Nature 528, 311 (2015) doi:10.1038/528311b

Klein, Richard G. "Southern Africa and modern human origins." Journal of Anthropological Research 57, no. 1 (2001): 1-16.

McGee, W. J. "Ojibwa feather symbolism." American Anthropologist 11, no. 6 (1898): 177-180.

Mulvaney, Ken. "Dating the Dreaming: extinct fauna in the petroglyphs of the Pilbara region, Western Australia." Archaeology in Oceania 44, no. S1 (2009): 40-48.

Negro, Juan José. "Raptors and People: An Ancient Relationship Persisting Today." In Birds of Prey, pp. 161-176. Springer, Cham, 2018.

Romandini, Matteo, Marco Peresani, Véronique Laroulandie, Laure Metz, Andreas Pastoors, Manuel Vaquero, and Ludovic Slimak. "Convergent evidence of eagle talons used by late Neanderthals in Europe: a further assessment on symbolism." PloS one 9, no. 7 (2014): e101278.

Whiten, Andrew, Jane Goodall, William C. McGrew, Toshisada Nishida, Vernon Reynolds, Yukimaru Sugiyama, Caroline EG Tutin, Richard W. Wrangham, and Christophe Boesch. "Cultures in chimpanzees." Nature 399, no. 6737 (1999): 682.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “Possession of Eagle Feathers and Parts by Native Americans.” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, February 2009.

“Vision, Purpose & Strategic Objectives” [Press release]. Board Policy. (2018).


1.) “Vision, Purpose & Strategic Objectives,“ Board Policy (Royal Ontario Museum 2018 ).

2.) “How birds spread around the globe”(Nature 2015).

3.) Stewart Finlayson, et al. “Neanderthals and the cult of the Sun Bird” (Quaternary Science Reviews. 2019), 218; Matteo Romandini, et al. “Convergent evidence of eagle talons used by late Neanderthals in Europe: a further assessment on symbolism” (Plos One. 2014).

4.) Finlayson Stewart, “Neanderthals and the cult of the Sun Bird,” 218-219.

5.) Richard Klein, “Southern Africa and modern human origins" (Journal of Anthropological Research 2001), 10.

6.) Carbonell Eudald, and Marina Mosquera. “The emergence of a symbolic behaviour: the sepulchral pit of Sima de los Huesos, Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos, Spain” (Comptes Rendus Palevol 2006), 159.

7.) Andrew Whiten, et al. “Cultures in chimpanzees” (Nature 1999).

8.) Stewart Finlayson, “Neanderthals and the cult of the Sun Bird,” 219-220

9.) McGee W. J, “Ojibwa feather symbolism” (American Anthropologist 1898), 179

10.) Arni Brownstone, “Eagle Wing Fan,” Eagle wing fan – Works – ROM Online Collection, December 31, 1874,

11.) Ken Mulvaney, “Dating the Dreaming: extinct fauna in the petroglyphs of the Pilbara region, Western Australia” (Archaeology in Oceania 2009); Negro Juan José, “Raptors and People: An Ancient Relationship Persisting Today,” Birds of Prey (2018), 170.

12.) Gustave Axelson. “Vanishing: More Than 1 in 4 Birds Has Disappeared in the Last 50 Years.” All About Birds, September 19, 2019.

13.) U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “Possession of Eagle Feathers and Parts by Native Americans” (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, February 2009),

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