Scientists Spent Years Pretending to Be Neanderthals Catching Birds by Hand

Scientists caught hundreds of birds in Spanish caves by net and by hand over the course of years, to prove a point about how Neanderthals lived.
September 20, 2021, 1:00pm
Scientists Spent Years Pretending to Be Neanderthals Catching Birds by Hand
Image: Will Oliver - PA Images / Contributor via Getty Images
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To support their audacious theory about Neanderthals’ diets and habits, a team of scientists ventured to Spanish caves after dark and caught hundreds of roosting birds with their bare hands and a net. 

Their new research may upend a longstanding paradigm about prehistoric hominids and add to a growing body of evidence that Neanderthals coordinated on complex behaviors and used advanced technology like fire. While the controlled use of fire by Neanderthals has been debated for some time, scholars have uncovered evidence that Neanderthals used fire and may have been adept at creating it, too. 

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“We extended the niche of Neanderthals,” said co-author Juan José Negro, a research professor at Spain’s CSIC. “Nobody thought they would do anything but sleep at night, when they would actually forage and go out for dinner.”

According to Negro, first author Guillermo Blanco has studied choughs, a bird in the crow family, for over 30 years. He knew from firsthand experience how easy the birds were to catch and band for research. It seemed obvious to him that for early hominids, capturing choughs would have been the Paleolithic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel; however, Neanderthals were thought to have subsisted on plants and mammals like deer hunted during the day.

The two ornithologists enlisted Antonio Sánchez-Marco, a paleo-ornithologist, to put together a literature review on the ranges of Neanderthals and two species of chough, as well as any evidence for chough consumption. Their study, published on September 9 in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, contains a map showing the overlap in Neanderthals’ and choughs’ ranges, and evidence of both their presences at individual archeological sites. In at least nine sites across Europe, the researchers found evidence in the literature for chough bones that had been cut, charred or bitten by hominids.

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Then came the fun part: over multiple years, groups of mainly four or five researchers set out with Blanco into caves in Spain to demonstrate that catching the birds by hand was feasible by a “silent night-time approach.” Shining a flashlight near the sleeping birds would “dazzle” them, researchers wrote, and they could be captured unharmed in a large butterfly net. “On many (not quantified) occasions the dazzled choughs were captured by bare hand in flight,” they wrote in the study. The birds were banded and let go shortly after.

Negro, who occasionally accompanied Blanco on the expeditions, said that catching the birds was much less difficult than one might expect.

“They’re absolutely motionless, and they don’t try to bite you or anything,” he said, adding that after nagging them, he’d put all the birds into a large bag. “It’s like collecting apples, it’s very easy,” he said.

The study also details one occasion in which Blanco and collaborators in their twenties were able to capture 10 choughs each with their bare hands and headlamps. Of course, the Neanderthals would not have used artificial light, but Negro said that actual fire may make capture even easier by further disorienting the birds with smoke.

Neanderthals could see better in low light than humans, and they had shorter legs, potentially making the hunt even easier for them. Recent research has also suggested that the speech and hearing capacities of Neanderthals and humans were similar enough that Neanderthals could have maintained a vocal communication system similar to human speech. Additionally, another one of Negro’s studies found evidence that Neanderthals hunted and ate rock doves in a cave in Gibraltar.

These findings, in combination with the researchers’ experiments, suggest to the scientists that Neanderthals may have hunted together at night using technology, a situation never before considered.

Choughs may have been a tasty and nutritious treat for the early hominids, Negro said. One species, the red-billed chough, has the highest concentration of carotenoids recorded in a bird due to the worms they eat. Not only are carotenoids essential micronutrients, they also give crustaceans like lobster their taste. Indeed, Negro added that people in Morocco consider choughs a delicious delicacy, with a similar taste to a partridge.