How birds are opening up windows into the lives of the Neanderthals

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Photo Credit Gibmetal77 Wikimedia
Entrance to Gorham’s Cave Gibraltar where many fossils have been found

WHILST Gibraltar likes to refer to itself as the ‘cradle of history’, recent papers published in the Quaternary International journal and complied by the Gibraltar Museum and collaborating scientists do suggest that Gibraltar has played a very important part in mankind’s development and the proof may be found in its range of caves.

It has long been recognised that with no less than 151 species of birds identified in fossil material found in the caves, Gibraltar is probably the site with the largest number of bird species in the world dating back between 100,000 and 125,000 years.

Recent publications have shown how Neanderthals exploited birds for food but also for their feathers. Now, the new papers add to this wealth of ground-breaking information.

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The first paper uses the rich avifauna in Gibraltar to test the environmental quality of the site. It compares Gibraltar with another Neanderthal site – Zafarraya in Malaga. Despite the relative proximity of the two sites they differed dramatically in environmental quality as judged by the species of birds in each site.

When compared to the 151 species from Gibraltar, Zafarraya had only 35 but the difference according to the scientists is not just in numbers but also in species found. The birds in Zafarraya were mainly cliff nesting species whilst, Gibraltar had the same cliff nesters but also species from wetlands, woodland, open plains and the coast.

The authors take this to mean that the ecological options available to the Neanderthals in Gibraltar were far greater than in Zafarraya and that this would have undoubtedly contributed to the long-term presence and survival in Gibraltar and Zafarraya, on the other hand, was probably a short-term hunting station.

The paper highlights the importance of geographical location to site quality. Zafarraya at over 1000 metres in altitude suffered the ravages of the glaciations much more than Gibraltar which was at sea level and surrounded by the tempering influence of the sea.

The second paper builds on previously published data on the exploitation of birds of prey and corvids by Neanderthals for the use of the feathers. A detailed analysis revealed that the main species involved were those that were regularly attracted to animal carcasses.

Stewart Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum, who is a co-author of the first paper and the lead author of this second paper said “Our data analysis confirmed our hunch. Here we had the smoking gun: the Neanderthals would have been lying in wait at animal carcasses in the knowledge that eagles and vultures would find the food too tempting.”

The conclusion therefore is that the Neanderthals ambushed the large birds. The authors suggest that, as the practice was present in Eurasia before the arrival of modern humans it must have been invented independently by modern humans and Neanderthals, been present in the common ancestor or, provokingly, learnt by modern humans from the Neanderthals.

“I love the irony of this last option” said Finlayson, “after years of having had the Neanderthals put down as brutes who learnt what little they knew from modern humans, now we are turning the table 180 degrees. We know now that Neanderthals and our ancestors exchanged genes; now it seems that they learnt from each other as well and it wasn’t always in one direction.”

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