Until recently, exploiting birds was considered to an exclusive -- and even defining -- feature of modern human behavior. It takes guile to systematically exploit small, quick game. "Neanderthals were seen as too brutish to catch fast prey," says Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum. Now, according to a new study published in Scientific Reports this week, Neanderthals regularly hunted, or at least scavenged, pigeons for food. This suggests that, as “the earliest pigeon fanciers,” Neanderthals had independently developed some similar skills as modern humans.
Feral pigeons (or rock doves, Columba livia) have colonized every corner of the planet it seems (there’s one sitting on my AC right now). Their wild ancestors nested on cliff ledges and at the entrance to large caves, placing them in close contact with cave-dwelling Homo -- but before modern humans arrived in Europe.
Finlayson, Ruth Blasco from the Gibraltar Museum, and colleagues analyzed 1,724 bones of ancient rock doves found in Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar, spanning the time period of 67,000 to 28,000 years ago. During this time, the cave was occupied by Neanderthals, and subsequently by modern humans.
The team found rock dove bones with cut marks, as well as bones showing signs that they’d been burnt, indicating that birds were butchered and cooked by inhabitants of the cave.
A cut-marked ulna (forelimb bone) is pictured on the right. The exploitation of birds wasn’t causal or sporadic; rather, it was regular and widely spaced, occurring in 58 percent of the Neanderthal zones.
Although the proportion of bones found with cut marks was relatively small -- 28 wing, lower limb, and sternum bones -- the researchers say that the small birds would require minimal butchering with stone tools. After skinning and removing the feathers, the direct use of hands and teeth would be the best way to remove the meat, fat, and cartilage from the bones. Human-like teeth marks were also found on some bones, separate from carnivore teeth marks.
About 12 percent of the bones (that’s 158) showed signs of burning. Of those, 29 bones exhibited evidence of “double coloring,” which means the entire surface of the bone wasn’t exposed to fire with the same intensity: They were put on a fireplace for roasting.
Modern humans in traditional societies often use a variety of bird traps (such as snares or nets baited with food), sometimes in combination with bird calls and whistles. The researchers aren’t sure how the Neanderthals caught the pigeons. "We know that they climbed up cliffs to hunt ibex, so maybe they also climbed to the ledges where the birds nested," Finlayson tells New Scientist. "I think they might have had snares or netting made from grasses, but we'll never know as it's all perishable."
Images: C. Finlayson (top) & Ruth Blasco et al., Scientific Reports 2014 (middle)