As if life during the Ice Age wasn’t already tough enough, it seems there were giant, man-eating birds to contend with. Polish researchers have discovered that the remains of a Neanderthal child once passed through the digestive system of a large bird. Yikes.
The tiny finger bone fragments, which measure no more than a centimeter (0.4 inches), were discovered in Poland’s Cave Ciemna. Originally thought to be animal bones, it turns out they belonged to a Neanderthal between 5 and 7 years of age, and date back 115,000 years. The bones aren’t well preserved enough for DNA analysis, but the team are sure of their identity.
“We have no doubts that these are Neanderthal remains, because they come from a very deep layer of the cave, a few meters below the present surface,” said Professor Pawel Valde-Nowak of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow in a statement. “This layer also contains typical stone tools used by the Neanderthal."
While the fact that the bones belong to a Neanderthal is notable in itself, since evidence of these ancient hominins in Poland is rare, their journey through a bird’s guts is particularly intriguing.
"Only single fragments of fossil bones belonging to relatives of modern man (Homo sapiens) have survived to our times in Poland," noted Valde-Nowak. "We can count the Neanderthal remains found in Poland on the fingers of one hand!" The others are three teeth found in Cave Stajnia, located 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of the Carpathian Mountains. Neanderthals likely popped up in Poland around 300,000 years ago, as they did in the rest of Europe.
The bones are dotted with teeny holes, which, according to the researchers, indicates they have passed through the digestive system of a large bird. “This is the first such known example from the Ice Age,” said Valde-Nowak.
So, was the innocent child chased down and savagely gobbled up by a giant fowl? The researchers can’t say for sure. While they hypothesize that the bird may have attacked and eaten part of the child, they also note that it may have simply stumbled upon a dead body and scavenged on it as an afternoon snack.
The idea of a bird chomping on a child might seem pretty implausible, but many bird species around today are pretty formidable predators – although luckily they don't eat kids. Nevertheless, as noted by The Smithsonian, New Zealand’s now-extinct Haast eagle had talons strong enough to pierce through a human pelvis.
So, it's certainly possible that our Neanderthal relatives had to ward off massive raptors. And, since they once slayed large bears for meat and pelts, they probably didn't have too much trouble. The findings will be published later this year in the Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology.